The Triumph of the City

 











The High Renaissance
 
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EXPLORATION


Pieter Bruegel the Elder


 
 
 
 


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 privilege.
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 drink."
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 weather-induced melancholia.
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.

 

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Let Us Build a Tower to the Heavens


The world as a construction site
 
K.Reichold, B.Graf
 

 

 
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
1563


EXPLORATION

Pieter Bruegel the Elder


 

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