Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Peasant Wedding
Feast, c. 1567
The barn is full -
time for a wedding!
Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen
Peasant Wedding Feast
The painting, now measuring 114 x 163 cm, is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum,
Vienna. It is neither signed nor dated. The signature and date were probably on
the bottom section of the original oak panel, which was sawn off and replaced at
a later date. The craftsmanship of the more recent section is noticeably poorer.
Experts think Bruegel painted the work c. 1567. He married in 1563 and died in
1569, aged about 40. The Peasant Wedding Feast was
therefore executed during his short marriage, shortly before his death.
The celebration takes place on the threshing floor of a farm. Long tables - not
even the rich had proper tables in the 16th century - were put together using
wooden planks and trestles. The man in black on the far right is seated on an
upturned tub, while most of the other guests sit on roughly hewn benches. The
only chair with a backrest has been reserved for an old man: possibly the notary
who drew up the contract of marriage. The prints pinned to the backrest of the
long bench resemble those sold during religious festivals or pilgrimages.
In the foreground two men serve bowls of meal, using an unhinged door as a tray.
Though merely servants at the feast, the left of the two, the largest figure in
the whole painting, is the focal point. The colours, too, make him stand out.
Presumably, the artist used the figure to stabilize a complicated composition.
The half-diagonals formed by the two rows of eaters in the foreground intersect
in the waiter; the edges of the back of his apron mark the central axis.
A bunch of ribbons, similar to those tied to the instruments of the two bagpipe
players, or peeping out from some men's shirts, hangs from his cap. Usually,
these were used to lace up trousers. Worn on the hat, or tied to instruments,
they probably indicated membership of a group. Young men at the time lived very
much in cliques, a source of fun as well as an opportunity to celebrate with
people of their own age.
Scholars often attribute religious or allegorical significance to the work. Some
see it as the marriage at Cana where Christ turned water into wine and vessels
were filled over and over again. Others suggest this was Bruegel's version of
the Last Supper. Yet another view has it that he was warning his contemporaries
against "gula", the deadly sin of gluttony.
None of these hypotheses is especially convincing. However, The Peasant
Wedding Feast is full of realistic detail, providing a window on
16th-century social reality. In his biographical Book of Painters,
published in 1604, Carel van Mander describes how Bruegel often went "to visit
the peasants, whenever there was a wedding; or kermis".
The barn is full
Two sheaves of corn, held together by a rake, whose pole
handle is buried in stacked cereal: at first glance the
background of straw or unthreshed wheat, almost identical in
hue to the trodden clay of the floor, looks like a normal
wall. However, the projecting rake and, above the bride's
head, the prongs of a fork used to hold up a decorative
cloth, together with the blades of corn sticking out on top
of the heap, make it clear what Bruegel intended to depict.
The image of a full barn evoked a different response four
hundred years ago than in our own age of agricultural
surpluses. Cereal was the staple diet; as bread or meal it
formed the bulk of every mealtime. To Bruegel's
contemporaries, the sight of a full barn meant the threat of
starvation was staved off for the following twelve months.
It was a threat which, as in many developing countries
today, recurred annually in Europe. The size of harvests
varied enormously, and in the Netherlands, according to
historians, losses of as much as 80% had been recorded from
one year to the next. Prices were consequently unstable: a
yearly increase of 500 percent for a standard measure of
oats or wheat was not unknown. A craftsman's apprentice, for
example, spent 70% of his income on food, which was mainly
cereal. High prices meant insufficient nourishment, which,
in turn, led to reduced bodily resistance, illness and early
death. Epidemics usually followed in the wake of famine.
Town authorities attempted to compensate by stockpiling and
imports. At that time, the Baltic was the breadbasket of
Europe, with the Hanse in control of shipment. A sea-journey
round the coast of Denmark could take two months. With two
months for the order to reach the supplier, and allowance
made for winter stoppages, it is obvious that imports could
not compensate for bad harvests. What counted was how full
your barn was.
There were seasonal fluctuations in price, too. Cereal was
cheapest in autumn, directly after the harvest. Most of the
threshing was done between September and January - on the
threshing floor, which provides the setting for Bruegel's
Peasant Wedding Feast. Since weddings usually
took place as soon as the harvest was gathered, the cereal
here was probably unthreshed.
The Netherlandish peasants were better off in the 16th
century than many of their class in other European
countries. They had their freedom: serfdom had been
abolished, and forced labour for the feudal lords was
prohibited by law. In the Netherlands, the peasants'
situation made it unnecessary to have a war of the type that
raged in Germany. Initially, the Netherlanders found it
possible to adapt to the colonial hegemony of the Spanish
Habsburgs. In 1567, however, Philip II sent the Duke of Alba
from Madrid to raise taxes and wipe out Protestant "heresy".
The last years of Bruegel's life marked the end of an era of
prosperity. The long struggle for the liberation of the
Netherlands had begun.
A spoon in your hat meant poverty
There was no more densely populated region north of the Alps than
the Netherlands. This was largely due to higher wages. The textiles
industry flourished; the Netherlandish ports attracted coastal trade
from the Baltic in the north to Lisbon in the south; for several
decades Antwerp, the site of the first stock-exchange, was the
economic hub of Europe.
The agricultural economy of the densely-populated Netherlands was
thought especially progressive and productive. The fact that
peasants, as free holders, worked for their own livelihood, acted as
a stimulant - even if the feudal lords owned their houses and land.
As money circulation grew and capitalist forms of wage-labour
developed, the wealthy bourgeoisie, who had begun to replace the
nobles, invested in agriculture as a means of supporting their
families in times of crisis.
The man in the dark suit "with broad sleeves may have been the
landlord. It is impossible to say whether he was a wealthy burgher
or a noble, for to wear a sword was no longer deemed an aristocratic
The aristocracy and clergy each made up approximately one percent of
the population. Relations between them were generally excellent. In
order to preserve property and power, many sons and daughters of the
nobility did not marry, entering various Church institutions
in-stead. In this sense, the Church provided a form of social
relief, and, in return, was made the benefactor of countless
donations and legacies. For Bruegel's contemporaries it would have
been immediately obvious why the monk in the painting converses with
the only wedding guest who might be construed as an aristocrat.
The spoon attached to a waiter's hat was a sign of poverty. Since
the abolition of serfdom and, its corollary, the obligation of
feudal lords to maintain their serfs' welfare, the rural proletariat
had greatly increased in number. Peasants with no property or means
took whatever work they could find, harvesting, threshing, even
assisting on festive occasions. Most lived in huts and were
unmarried; wages were not enough to feed a family. Few had a fixed
abode, for they spent too long on the road in search of work, a
crust of bread or a bowl of meal. This explains the spoon attached
to the man's hat, and his bag, of which - in the present work - only
the shoulder-strap is visible.
The wooden spoon is round. Oval spoons came later, when - following
the example of the courts - it was thought bad manners to open one's
mouth too wide while eating. To put something into one's mouth with
a fork was practically unknown in the 16th century. The alternatives
to the spoon were fingers or a knife. Everyone carried their own
knife; even the child in the foreground has one dangling from his
belt. No instrument features more often in Bruegel's paintings - the
knife was the 16th-century all-purpose tool.
Melancholia, a thirsty business
The jug being filled in the foreground is a man's
drinking vessel. Women drank from smaller jugs. Whether they
are serving wine or beer is impossible to say. Wine had been
a popular drink in the Netherlands for several centuries
and, at that time, was grown much further north than was
later the case. By the 16th century, however, wine-growing
was on the decline. The perimeter of the wine-growing
regions retreated south, settling more or less where we find
it today. Ludovico Guicciardini, reporting on Netherlandish
wine in 1563, noted that the "little there was of it
generally tasted sour".
Wine was replaced by beer. This was originally imported from
Germany, from Hamburg or Bremen. Not until Bruegel's
lifetime was beer brewed in large quantities in the
Netherlands, where it was not only produced in breweries.
The peasants celebrating in this scene may have brewed their
own beer. Home-brewing was wide-
spread, and considered a woman's work. Calculations suggest
an average daily consumption of one litre per person.
According to Guicciardini: "For those used to it, the common
beverage of beer, brewed with water, spelt, barley and some
wheat, and boiled with hops, is a pleasurable and healthy
Beer was an important part of the 16th-century diet. It even
caused rebellions - for example when the Antwerp city
council prohibited the brewing of beer in the Old Town, or
its transportation from the surrounding regions. The council
"were quick to repeal the beer-law that had so displeased
the common people", wrote Guicciardini.
It is to this Italian that we owe the most interesting
account of the Netherlands in the 16th century. In his own
country, as in Spain, drunkenness was considered
disgraceful, and Guicciardini conseqeuently castigates the
"vice and abuse of drunkenness". According to his
observations, the Netherlanders drank "night and day, and so
much that, besides creating disorder and mischief, it does
them great harm in more ways than one". As a southerner,
unused to the north, he found an excuse for their behaviour:
the climate. The air was "damp and melancholy", and "they
had found no better means" of driving away their
There is no sign of drunkenness in this painting, however.
Indeed, the mood seems comparatively sober; an Italian may
even have found it melancholy. Nonetheless, the mood would
no doubt change as the meal progressed, or during the
celebrations, which could last anything up to several days.
Bruegel's Peasant Wedding Dance (Institute of
Arts, Detroit), 1566, a painting of almost identical format,
shows the guests in a frenzy of drunken revelry. The two
paintings could almost be a pair.
In contrast to the ease with which the bride may be
identified, it is difficult to decide which of the
celebrants is the bridegroom; he may be the man filling the
jugs, whose place, apparently unoccupied, may be at the top
of the table on the right - obscured by one of the waiters.
He would thus be sitting between two men, just as his bride
is seated between two women. Wedding feasts are known to
have taken place without the bridegroom being invited, for a
wedding day was primarily the day of the bride.
The bride does not lift a finger
The bride, backed by green fabric, a bridal crown hovering above
her head, is easily distinguished. She presents a strange sight: her
eyes semi-closed, hands quite still, she is completely motionless.
Brides were expected to do nothing on their wedding days; forbidden
to lift a finger, she was thus guaranteed at least one holiday in a
lifetime of hard labour. A person who avoided work was sometimes
referred to as having "arrived with the bride". The nobleman, or
wealthy burgher, at the right of the painting is the only other
guest with his hands folded. He, too, was a stranger to physical
labour, it seems.
The bride is also the only guest not to cover her hair. She is
displaying her long hair in public for the last time. Henceforth,
like her married cousins at table, she will wear her hair under a
bonnet. Here, she wears a circlet, a "bride's coronet". In many
parts of the country at the time, this would have a prescribed
value. In the same way, the number of guests, the number of courses
served at the feast and the value of the wedding presents were all
determined in advance according to specific criteria. The
authorities justified this measure by claiming that it was necessary
to protect families against excessive expenditure, but the more
likely explanation is that it pro-vided a means of making social
status visible. A feast of this kind would have given Bruegel's
contemporaries a fairly exact picture of the financial standing of
the newly-weds, or their parents.
The meal was preceded by a wedding ceremony. As far as Luther was
concerned this was a purely secular affair, and a priest's presence
optional rather than compulsory. This had also been the case among
Catholics. In 1563, however, a few years before the painting was
executed, the cardinals at the Council of Trent decided that only
priests should join couples in wedlock. It is possible that the
Franciscan monk at the table was invited precisely for this purpose.
At the time, however, ceremonies were frequently held at the
entrance of the church rather than in front of an altar.
Statistics for the period reveal that women raised an average of 2.5
children. There had been a child more in the previous half of the
16th century, but the peasant population was decimated by the wars
of liberation which broke out in the wake of Alba's rule of terror,
the wholesale pillage, perpetrated especially in unprotected rural
areas, by marauding armies, and by ensuing famine and plague.
Bruegel did not live to witness this. His paintings were bought by
wealthy burghers or nobles, many finding their way into collections
owned by the Austrian Habsburgs. In 1594 the Peasant Wedding
Feast was purchased in Brussels by Archduke Ernst. It later
turned up in Emperor Rudolf II's famous collection at Prague.
There was practically no chance of peasants themselves seeing a
painting like this. The only works of art they saw were in churches.
If they owned decorative pictures at all, they were most likely to
be religious prints of the type pinned to the backrest of the bench
in Bruegel's Wedding Feast.
Let Us Build a Tower to the Heavens
The world as a
King Nimrod, Chamas's grandson, Noah's son, said he wanted
to revenge himself on God if God should again afflict the
earth by visiting a second deluge upon it. Therefore he said
he would build a tower so high that the flood-waters would
not reach its top.
Josephus Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews, Book I,
Chapter 4, first century AD
The Empire State Building, New York
Teeming with master builders, carpenters, stonemasons,
mortar mixers and brick-masons, the enormous construction
site depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in The Tower
of Babel recalls something like an anthill. It is
clear that no expense was spared here. A tower was to be
built, which would reach the Heavens. However, it was not
intended merely to withstand the floodwaters of a second
deluge. If one believes what is written in the OldTestament
and in the writings of Josephus Flavius, a Romanised Jewish
historian, or even what is supposed to have been in The
Sibylline Books, the tower primarily symbolised man's
defiance against divine omnipotence. Evidently the act of
building achieved its purpose: "The Lord waxed wroth and
became enraged when for Hoffart the tower was engaged",
quipped the Strasbourg Humanist Sebastian Brant in his
Narren-schiff (1494), published in English as The
Shyp of Folys of the Worlde in 1509. Needless to say,
the Lord was not amused by these excesses. He descended from
the Heavens to punish the construction workers who, until
then, had spoken to each other 111 the same language.
After the visitation they were left with a confused babble
of tongues. Since people could no longer communicate with
each other, the tower was left unfinished. A gigantic
monument to hubris, it crumbled into decay. Did such a tower
actually stand in Babylon, then one of the world's oldest
cities, long the political and cultural hub of the ancient
Near East? Archaeologists are not in agreement on this
point. Nevertheless, in 1899, the remains of a sanctuary
were uncovered on the site of ancient Babylon. In the middle
of the temple precinct traces were found of a square tower
consecrated to the god Marduk. Its sides were 91.5 metres
long and it was estimated to have been some 90 metres high.
Was this the legendary Tower of Babel?
The Netherlandish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder
transplanted the Tower of Babel to Antwerp, where he joined
the St Luke's Artisans' Guild in 1551. That Pieter Bruegel
made the Tower of Babel the subject of a painting shows the
painter felt he, too, was living in a time of social,
political and religious unrest. He obviously thought a great
deal about what the biblical tower symbolised: ambition,
pride and the transience of human existence. His painting
may, therefore, be a sign that some sane voices were calling
for moderation and reflection in an exhilarating age of
global exploration and of expanding trade links. On the
other hand, The Tower of Babel might just as easily be taken
to represent a manifesto against the denial of human rights,
oppression and tyranny, a vision invoking the imminent end
of the Spanish domination of the Netherlands. The painting
might also be interpreted as moral support for the
Reformation. Its leading exponents never ceased to censure
the Papacy and the princes loyal to Rome for "resurrecting"
the godless city of Babylon. The Reformers were of the
opinion that it was high time for more linguistic diversity
since, as they saw it, the Church of Rome no longer had
anything worth saying.
The Tower of Babel
Pieter Bruegel the Elder