the Elder

1525 - 1569

Peasants, Fools and Demons


Renaissance Art Map
Pieter Bruegel the Elder  Peasants, Fools and Demons
    A Brief Life in Dangerous Times
    Antwerp: a Booming City
    The Holy Family in the Snow
    Exploring the World
    Demons in Our Midst
    Village Life
    Nature as Man's Environment
    Not only Peasants
    Pieter the Droll?
    Life and Work






Antwerp: a Booming City



Skating outside St. George's Gate, Antwerp
Antwerp was to develop in the 16th centun from a small port to Europe's business metro polis. Artists also profited from the rapid financial transactions. Bruegel lived here from 1554 to 1563.

We know neither where nor precisely when Bruegel was born. There were no state birth registers, and church baptismal records were more the exception than the rule. The first written mention of "Peeter Brueghels" dates from 1551, when he was enrolled as a master in the Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp. New masters were usually between 21 and 26 years of age, so Bruegel could have been born between 1525 and 1530. To put this in perspective, it would be some fifty years before Rubens (1577) and some eighty years before Rembrandt (1606) were born.
Bruegel's birthplace is assumed to have been Breda or some nearby village with a name similar to that of the painter. He would settle down twice in especially wealthy cities, first in Antwerp and later in Brussels, the residence of the Habsburg Spanish regent.
Antwerp was the city with the highest growth rate in Europe, the new financial and economic centre of the western world, the focal point for businessmen from many countries. The discovery of the sea routes via Africa to Asia, and over the Atlantic to America, had helped Antwerp to a position of prominence, with the old trade routes via the Mediterranean losing and the ports along the Atlantic coast gaining in importance. Antwerp was also favourably situated for north-south traffic, involving such goods as silk and spices from the Middle East, grain from the Baltic countries, wool from England. Artists and craftsmen also profited from the turnover of goods and rapid financial transactions. It is believed that 360 painters were at work in Antwerp in 1560, an unusually high number. Given a population of some 89,000 inhabitants (the figure for 1569), this would work out at approximately one painter per 250 citizens. For many decades, there was no better place for painters to be north of the Alps than in Antwerp.
The painters' exceptionally high numbers also made them particularly crisis-prone, however. A temporary economic slump could have been the reason for Bruegel's journey to Italy in 1552. There are no written records of this journey, but we do have sketches, drawings and paintings which bear witness to its having taken place. Virtually every contemporary painter went travelling, visiting Venice, Florence, and Rome to learn from the pictures of the Italian masters and especially to study the works of antiquity. Many of these Netherlands painters, as "Romanists", brought Renaissance ideas and ideals back with them to the north. Bruegel was not one of them, however; he returned to Antwerp from Italy in 1554, to stay there until 1562.
The boom-town atmosphere of the rapidly growing city will have been frightening for many of its inhabitants. The people of the 16th century were accustomed to life in small, manageable communities in which the population was relatively stable and everyone knew everyone else. This was not the case in the metropolis of world trade. The population of Antwerp well-nigh doubled between 1500 and 1569. Some one thousand souls of this host were foreigners, speaking different languages and practising different customs; they were watched with suspicion. The loss of church unity further contributed to the general insecurity and disquiet, with Catholics living next to Calvinists, Lutherans and Anabaptists. The result was a "multicultural" society with problems of communication, especially with respect to matters of religion.
Contemporaries saw a possible allegory for this unaccustomed situation in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, as related in Genesis 11. King Nimrod had wanted to build a tower, the top of which would reach to heaven. God, regarding the construction as an act of arrogance, of hubris, had punished the people by stripping them of their common language. Having lost the ability to communicate with one other, the builders scattered, leaving the work unfinished.
Bruegel painted the Babylonian tower no less than three times. The Tower of Babel (1563) and The "Little" Tower of Babel (c. 1563) have survived; the former may be seen in Vienna, the latter in Rotterdam. A gigantic edifice has been depicted twice. Never before had a painter successfully rendered the dimensions of the tower so vividly, nor the extent to which it surpassed everything previously known to man.
Bruegel has portrayed the construction work in both paintings not as some distant event but rather as a contemporary building project, complete with a wealth of realistic details. The pictures are brought to life, for example through his selection of a riverside location for the building site: it was along waterways that bulk goods such as stones were customarily transported. Bruegel's depiction of lifting devices is almost pedantic. A powerful crane stands on one of the ramps in the Vienna picture, with three men treading away in the front drum and a further three - albeit invisible - in the rear one; such cranes were quite capable of raising stone blocks weighing several tons. The painter will have been familiar with the pier buttresses from Gothic cathedrals, where they provided resistance to the side thrust of the walls. He has put several huts on the ramps spiralling up to the top of the tower; this, too, was in keeping with the reality of contemporary large-scale building projects, where each guild or construction team would have had its own on-site hut.
In the Vienna picture, Bruegel has spread out a city at the foot of the edifice towering up into the clouds. This is one of his rare urban landscapes. In the foreground, King Nimrod is inspecting the work of the stonemasons, one of whom is down on his knees before the monarch. In Europe, subjects went down before potentates on only one knee; going down on both, the kowtow, is Bruegel's sole indication that the king in question here is from the Middle East.
Nimrod's presence in the picture from Vienna recalls the King's arrogance and the motif of hubris. The King is absent in the darker, seemingly more threatening painting in Rotterdam; instead, a procession with a red baldachin, scarcely visible to the naked eye, has been inserted on one of the ramps. It was customary for Catholic dignitaries to proceed under such baldachins - an indication that not even the higher ranks of the clergy are immune to arrogance? These dabs of colour must have been important for Bruegel, since he has placed them on the same level as the horizon line, at the very midpoint of the picture seen from the side.



The Tower of Babel
Bruegel has placed the building site in a coastal landscape; the Netherlander acquired a considerable proportion of their wealth from maritime activities. The tower is also situated near a river, since it was along the waterways, and not via the unpaved country roads, that bulk goods were transported in those days. The painter has given the biblical account many realistic features, among them the city panorama.



The Tower of Babel (details)

King Nimrod is paying a visit to the building site, stonemasons going down on their knees before him. Performing the kowtow was not common practice in Europe; Bruegel made use of it to point to the story's oriental origins.
He remained true to his surroundings for most of the other details, however: a treadwheel crane of the type to be seen in the detail on the right is believed to have stood in the Antwerp marketplace.



The Tower of Babel (detail)

Foreign merchants, new religious groupings, and the city's rapid growth led to problems of orientation and communication in Antwerp. An allegory for this situation was seen in the biblical account of the Tower of Babel: intended to reach up to heaven, it displeased God, who stripped humankind of their common language, thereby preventing the comletion of the tower's construction.



The Tower of Babel (details)


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