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






Demons in Our Midst




Gula (detail)

Gula means immoderation or gluttony and is numbered among the Seven Deadly Sins, which Bruegel portrayed in seven sheets full of fantastic figures and terrifying visions.

Bruegel's century saw the exploration of the Earth's surface, a fresh survey of the heavens, the examination of the human body, and the cataloguing of the animal and plant worlds. People's interest was focused upon what we today would call reality. At that time, however, many will have regarded as real, as existing, not only trees and animals, the liver and the spleen, but also demons. Scientific studies were unable to dispel handed-down popular belief. Many celestial phenomena, physical deformities, diseases and epidemics were as yet inexplicable, and were accordingly put down to the influence of devils and demons, together with their human accomplices. The latter alone, the witches and sorcerers, could be caught and punished. Thousands supposedly in league with the forces of evil - in particular women -were tortured, found guilty, and burnt at the stake.
Confessional reports and biographies reflect the great extent to which devils and demons were experienced as part of everyday reality. In the visual arts, they are given striking expression in the work of Hieronymus Bosch, likewise a Netherlander. Bruegel used his own fantasy to develop the tradition established by Bosch. He drew models for the prints of The Seven Deadly Sins (1558, detail p. 39) under commission from his publisher, Cock. Bruegel produced disturbing, unnatural landscapes filled with magical beings, in part playfully fantastical, in part genuinely threatening. It was presumably this mixture between the two elements, perhaps the thrill of fear, that was so sought after at the time.


The Seven Deadly Sins, or The Vices: Desidia (Sloth)




Avaritia (Greed)




The playful element is given less prominence in the artist's paintings, which are more serious in nature. Bruegel has depicted the origin of the demons in The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562), in which the Archangel Michael, together with his followers, is driving the angels who have rebelled against God out of Heaven. Falling to Hell, they are transformed into devils and demons. The proximity of God is indicated at the top edge by a brightly lit semicircle; furthermore, the upper - more heavenly - part of the picture is more clearly arranged and less congested than the lower one, approaching hell, in which the figures are chaotically falling past each other. A comparison of the angels and the devilish figures reveals that the former are clothed in lavishly swirling garments, leaving only their heads and hands visible. In contrast, most of the "evil ones" are naked, opening wide their mouths or tearing open their own bodies and - in some cases - presenting their buttocks to the observer's gaze. Bruegel has painted them merely as bodies, demonstrating the distance that lies between them and the spiritual beings, the angels.



The Fall of the Rebel Angels

The Archangel Michael, portrayed in golden-brown armour in the middle of the picture, is driving the angels who have rebelled against God out of Heaven. The angels in white garments are fighting on his side, while those who have broken away from God are metamorphosing into the mostly naked bodies of fantastic figures.



The Fall of the Rebel Angels (detail)





Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Battle about Money
after 1570


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