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 Fair at Hoboken (detail)

The dead were buried in the immediate proximity of the church; however, graveyards were not considered to be particularly solemn places.

The subjects most frequently treated by European painters in Bruegel's day and age were taken from the spheres of religion and classical antiquity. These included scenes from biblical history, repeatedly Christ on the cross, and - in Catholic realms - the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the martyrs, along with the heroes and gods of the Greeks and Romans. "Venus and Amor" or "Adam and Eve" became favourite subjects for painters from Cranach to Titian on account of the opportunities they represented for portraying beautiful bodies. A third group was concerned with the portraits of high-ranking personages and self-portraits. The buildings to be seen in these pictures were commonly palaces and town or city halls - magnificent edifices, in other words, not crofts and thatched houses, not such dwellings as would call to mind the arduous life in the country.
The only exception here was the Adoration of Christ by the shepherds or the Wise Men from the East. However, the stable buildings in such pictures were generally idealized, and had little in common with the painter's actual environment. It was only in the Netherlands that things differed in this respect. Many artists in this country incorporated their everyday milieu into their pictures, painting not only rich and important men but also nameless people - the peasants, the agricultural workers, their dwellings, their villages.
In his day, Bruegel was the most important of these painters displaying a pronounced realistic touch. It is true that he included a biblical scene in his painting of The Census at Bethlehem (1566); he depicted it so completely integrated into the pastoral life, however, that it can scarcely be made out at first glance. Mary on the donkey and Joseph in front of her differ neither in size nor in coloration from the other figures. The description of the village square struck the painter as being of greater urgency than the significance of the biblical characters. Bruegel selected an afternoon in winter, with the red sun already touching the horizon and the square full of people despite the cold. Such an outdoor life corresponded to everyday reality: while it was warmer in the houses, there was but little light indoors. Living conditions were cramped, all the members of a household often dwelling together in one single room. For these reasons, people in the 16th century spent more time on the streets and in the village square than in their houses, even in the north - a custom still followed today in southern countries. Children are enjoying themselves on the ice in Bruegel's painting; a hollow tree with a sign depicting a swan is serving as an open-air inn; and pigs are being slaughtered in the foreground, as was customary at the end of the year. The fact that this snowy day occurs before 24 December may be deduced from the account in Luke's Gospel, Chapter 2, in which Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem because the Emperor Augustus has ordered a census and everyone is to go to "his own town". Mary is in an advanced stage of pregnancy. The inn in the stable of which Jesus will be born could be the one in Bruegel's picture towards which Mary and Joseph are making.
A wreath indicates that the building is an inn or tavern. In Bruegel's painting, it also serves as the census-taking station. However, the painter has presumably taken not one of the rare registration actions but the collection of taxes as his source of inspiration: those standing in front of the window are paying their taxes, while the people behind the window-sill are receiving the coins and registering the amount in books. The office of tax collector was usually leased; however, the plaque next to the window with the Habsburg double eagle reveals in whose name the official is acting.



The Census at Bethlehem

There was next to no lighting within houses, apart from that thrown by the fire in the grate; accordingly, children and adults alike conducted their lives out of doors, even when it was cold. In the left-hand foreground, a pig is being slaughtered, a customary event with the onset of winter. Alcohol is being distributed at a treeside inn in the background, while the fires along the walls have a double function, not only warming the people but also roasting corn.



The Census at Bethlehem (detail)

The sun is setting over a Flemish village. The wreath hanging over a building in the left foreground is an inn sign; the plaque next to it displays the double eagle, the crest of the Habsburgs. Philip II in Madrid was of the House of Habsburg, and taxes are being collected here in his name.

Mary with the Christ child is sitting on a donkey, the ox visible behind her. Joseph is striding out in front of them in the direction of the inn where the tax collectors or census officials are. Otherwise, no one in Bruegel's depiction of a winter village square is interested in the biblical figures. No one pays them any attention; children are enjoying themselves on the ice with skates, tops, and a stool which has been pressed into use as a toboggan.




It is said that the financially flourishing Netherlands were required to find half of the taxes due from the huge Spanish Habsburg empire. The immensity of the sum gave rise to constant protests. Bruegel painted this peaceful picture in 1566; one year later Alba was to arrive, demanding additional contributions, a demonstrative act of oppression which would become one of the causes of the rebellion by the Netherlanders against Madrid.
Whenever Bruegel painted a village, he included a church in his depiction. This may be because of a wish on the part of the artist to comment in general terms on the importance of faith. It is more likely, however, that he painted or drew it every time because it represented a very real part of the village. The church was the community centre; it offered the possibility of coming together under one roof outside one's own cramped quarters, signalled the size and wealth of a village, performed not only a religious but also a social function.
The same was true of the graveyard. The engraving The Fair at Hoboken (1559) contains nothing of the gravity with which we enter graveyards today. Bruegel has depicted it as a general meeting-place. People are chatting, urinating, here and there even dancing. Almost incidentally, a procession is crowding through the church door, for the reason behind the origination of a fair is always a religious festival. The main area of the drawing is filled with people enjoying themselves, dancing, drinking, playing marbles or practising archery. The banner of the inn is billowing out for all to see. At the bottom edge of the picture, a man in fool's costume is leading two children by the hand. By including this figure, Bruegel is seeking to tell the observer that he is not only endeavouring to entertain with his portrayal of people enjoying themselves at a religious festival but also wishes to admonish him: Foolishness leads people astray.



The Fair at Hoboken

We know regarding the Netherlanders that they were fond of extravagant celebrations, and would cover considerable distances in order to participate in the festivities of other places. At the bottom edge of the picture, a fool is leading two children by the hand, in accordance with the motto "Folly leads men"


Peasants and Cattle near a Farmhouse
c. 1553


Elck or Everyman


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