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






Village Life




The Fight between Carnival and Lent (detail)



The Fight between Carnival and Lent (detail)



The Fight between Carnival and Lent (detail)




The figure of the fool walking along in the centre of the picture reveals that Brue-gel's interests lay beyond a mere depiction of communal life or carnival amusement. Some interpreters deduce from such pictures as this one that the painter was primarily a "teacher of the people". They look for the didactic message in every one of his works, treating each picture as a moralizing treatise. Thus, in the case of the painting portraying a winter-bound village on a frozen river with ice-skaters, Winter Landscape with a Bird-trap (1565), they are of the opinion that the blindness to danger of the birds under the converted door must be seen in connection with the foolishness of the people on the ice. It is surely not by chance, they argue, that the two birds on the bush in the foreground, or the one in the top-right corner, are as big as the people on the ice: the picture must surely be intended as an admonition to general prudence.
Would the painter have hidden his warning so discreetly, however, if it had been so important to him? Or was it perhaps meant by the painter as a little game for those who are constantly seeking some prescription for life in every picture? Or, again, could it be that what we see here is merely the chance product of perspective?
The fact that so much has been pondered and written on moral messages in Bruegel's pictures is presumably due not least to problems of communication: it is easier to talk about morality than about art. That which renders a picture art cannot be described in words. The interpreter can give some indication regarding the selection of colours, for example, or the aesthetic function of some undergrowth in the foreground. He is unable to explain the artistic process - how the painter succeeded in conveying the variety of information contained in an actual winter landscape onto a piece of wood 38 by 56 centimetres large, in such a way that the colours and shapes give us the impression of a landscape spreading out quite naturally before our eyes -and, furthermore, how the painter uses his colours and shapes to produce a feeling of happiness in the observer.
Instead of attempting an explanation, van Mander, Bruegel's first biographer, cites a drastic comparison, transferring the artistic process of transformation into a bodily one. The comparison was prompted by Bruegel's mountains, van Mander writing that people said that Bruegel, "when he was in the Alps, swallowed all the mountains and rocks and spat them out again as painting boards."



Winter Landscape with a Bird-trap

People are enjoying themselves on the ice; meanwhile, the birds are endangered through a door rigged to function as a deadfall. Since several of the birds have been painted as large as the people in the picture, some would interpret this work not only as depicting a winter landscape but also - primarily - as being intended as a warning to the observer to be on his guard against constant danger.



Winter Landscape with a Bird-trap (detail)


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