History of Literature


"Netherlandish Proverbs"


Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder


Pieter Bruegel the Elder


The same is true of Netherlandish Proverbs (1559). Here, too, the main axis leads from front left to back right; here, too, Bruegel has built in a divergence from perspective, in the form of the tarts on the roof, unexpectedly depicted head-on rather than foreshortened. Given the well-thought-out manner in which Bruegel painted, this can hardly be an error. Is he playing a game? Or is he consciously seeking to confuse?

Collecting proverbs was one of the many encyclopaedic undertakings in the 16th century. Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great humanist, began by publishing proverbs and the famous formulations of Latin authors in 1500. Flemish and German collections followed, while Rabelais' novel Pantagruel, with its description of an island of proverbs, appeared in 1564. By 1558, Bruegel had already painted his series of Twelve Proverbs, consisting of small, individual panels. His village of proverbs, however, was something apparently never attempted before; not a set of proverbs somehow strung together but a painting completely worked out in every detail.

More than a hundred proverbs and idiomatic expressions have been identified, many no longer in current usage - and many reflecting the considerably more direct language customary in that day and age! The majority describe stupid, immoral, crazy ways of behaviour. A devil is hearing confession in the pavilion that forms the focal point of the work; further to the right, a monk is mocking Christ and masking him with a beard; to his left, a woman is hanging a blue cloak over her husband's shoulders, signifying that she is deceiving him; a globe is hanging in front of the wall of the house, its cross pointed downwards to indicate the "topsy-turvy world" with which the painter was concerned: as with the children's games, he was motivated here not only by a passion for collecting but also by a particular, sceptical view of his contemporaries.

More than a hundred proverbs and idiomatic expressions have been identified, describing "topsy-turvy" ways of behaviour. This explains the other name occasionally given the painting, that of The Topsy-Turvy World. While one fellow lets the world dance upon his thumb (to his tune), another is unable to stretch from one loaf of bread to another - in other words, he is no good with money. If you spill your porridge, you will never be able to spoon it all back into the bowl: if you try to open your mouth wider than an oven door, you are overestimating your abilities.



Pieter Bruegel the Elder Netherlandish Proverbs



Netherlandish Proverbs (by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)


Netherlandish Proverbs






1 There the roof is tiled with tarts (a land of plenty; a fool's paradise; "Land of Cockaigne").
2 To marry over the broomstick (to go through a quasi-marriage ceremony; to live in sin under one roof is convenient but shameful).
3 To stick out the broom (the masters are not at home; "When the cat's away, the mice will play").
4 He looks through his fingers (he can afford to be indulgent because he is sure of his profit).
5 There hangs the knife (a challenge).
6 There stand the wooden shoes (to wait in vain).
7 They lead each other by the nose (they are tricking each other).
8 The die is cast (it is decided).
9 Fools get the best cards
10 It depends on the fall of the cards.
11 He shits on the world (he despises the world).
12 The world upside down (the opposite of the way things should be; "It's a topsy-turvy world").
13 To pull something through the eye (the hole in the handle) of a pair of scissors (to make a dishonest profit); or: an eye for an eye.




25 She can even tie the Devil to a pillow (spiteful obstinacy overpowers even the Devil himself).
26 He is a pillar-biter (a religious hypocrite).
27 She carries fire in one hand and water in the other (she is two-faced and deceitful).
28 a) To fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe ('To throw a sprat to catch a herring", that is, to sacrifice a trifle to gain something substantial).
b) His herring does not fry here (things are not going according to plan).
c) To get the lid on the head (to have to make pay for the damages; "To be left holding the bag").
29 a) He has more in him than an empty herring (many things often have a deeper significance than superficial observation would suggest; "There is more to it than meets the eye").
b) The herring hangs by its own gills (everyone must bear the consequences of his own mistakes).
30 To sit between two stools in the ashes (to miss an opportunity; to fail due to indecisiveness; 'To fall between two stools").
31 What can smoke do to iron? (It is useless to try to change the existing order).
32 The spindle falls into the ashes (the business at hand has failed).
33 To find the dog in the pot. When one lets in the dog, it will get into the larder (pot) (to have one's trouble for nothing; to come too late to prevent loss or damage)
34 Here the sow pulls out the bung (poor management; negligence will be punished).
35 He runs his head against a stone wall (to pursue the impossible recklessly and impetuously).
36 To be driven into armour (to be enraged, angered; 'To be up in arms over something").
37 To bell the cat (When one plans something which everyone finds out about, one's undertaking will turn out badly).
39 An iron-biter (a big mouth).
41 He always gnaws on one bone (endless, futile chore; or, to continually repeat everything; "To be always harping on the same string").
42 There the scissors hang out (symbol of pick-pocketing; a place of cheating and fleecing: "a clip joint").
46 Shear them but do not skin them (do not pursue your advantage at any price).




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