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






Nature as Man's Environment


Spring (detail)

Bruegel has depicted people working in the garden; he produced the drawing for this posthumous engraving in 1565.


In order to differentiate more easily between Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his painting sons," the former was later christened "Peasant Bruegel". "Landscape Bruegel" would have been equally fitting, since his depictions of landscapes are at least as original as those that he did of peasants. Today we would probably call him "Eco-Bruegel", after the sober and vivid manner in which he painted landscapes, portraying nature as man's environment.
It was not until Bruegel's century that the history of landscape painting really began. It had played a subordinate role in Christian painting towards the end of the Middle Ages; the subject of importance for mediaeval times was not so much one's visible surroundings as Heaven and Hell, and how one arrived at the one or the other. While landscapes were indeed reproduced in the book illuminations in the possession of the aristocrats, they were intended to show property ownership or profitable ground - woods for hunting, fields for agricultural working. Not until one or two generations before Bruegel did people discover the attractive sight and aesthetic pleasure that a landscape could offer. The first master of this subject is generally acknowledged to be Joachim Patinier (c. 1485-1524).
The Netherlander Patinier is credited, among other things, with the decisive development - if not the invention - of certain techniques in the depiction of landscape. An example of this may be seen in the representation of distance, of spatial depth. While this can be depicted by means of foreshortening, such a technique works better in the case of buildings with straight lines than in the context of natural forms. Patinier achieved the effect of depth by using colours, painting the foreground dark, generally in earth brown, the middle ground green, and the background, where earth and sky flow into each other, light blue, thus proceeding from dark to light. Bruegel usually adopted a similar pattern.
Furthermore, Patinier used an elevated vantage-point to fit a broad area of land into his picture. It is only from above that one's gaze can pass over houses, trees, hills. Bruegel imitated him in this, almost all of his landscapes depicting the view from a mountain or some otherwise undefined height.
Not only painters and their patrons felt the need to chart as big a section of the Earth's surface as possible. For purely practical reasons, sea-captains and merchants with far-reaching trading connections required maps for long-distance routes. Bruegel's friend Abraham Ortelius was among those offering such items; indeed, he became famous for producing the first world atlas to come onto the market.
This atlas included not only regional maps but also a map of the world, which, while of no practical value, was adorned with quotations of Roman philosophers. One of these states that man seems small if he considers "the entire eternity and size of the whole world". Another maintains: "The horse was created to pull and to carry, the bull to plough, the dog to keep watch and to hunt; man, however, was born to embrace the world with his gaze."
Both quotations belong to the body of ideas originating with the Stoa, the Graeco-Roman school of philosophy. The Stoics regarded the universe as a rationally ordered and beautiful structure in which every living thing has its allotted place and even man must fall into line and calmly accept his fate. Bruegel was doubtless familiar with these ideas of a rational universe, and there are indications that something of them or of the Stoic lifestyle found its way - whether consciously or not - into his pictures. Ortelius says of his friend that he "painted much that simply could not be painted. All of the works by our Bruegel always imply more than they depict."
The philosopher's abstract, imaginary cosmos was the artist's visible nature, to which man must adapt and of which he is as much a part as the plants and the animals - as can be seen in The Return of the Herd (1565), for example. Cows, trees and people are all portrayed in the same hues. As observers, we of course know that the drovers have a particular responsibility; ultimately, however, they are of the same matter as the other living beings and must fulfil their predestined task, whether they will or not.



The Return of the Herd

Many of Bruegel's paintings show people not so much as the masters of nature but rather as a part of it: there is hardly any difference here between the coloration of the cattle and that of their drovers. The Return of the Herd is one of a cycle depicting either the seasons or the months, five paintings of which have survived. This picture presumably depicts November.




The Suicide of Saul (1562) can also be interpreted in terms of Stoic thought. King Saul was guilty of arrogance: he did not obey Yahweh, God of the Old Testament; alternatively, in the sense of the Stoics, he offended against the laws of the universe. Accordingly, he had to die. We see on the left of the picture how, threatened by a superior enemy, he has fallen upon his sword. His squire is in the process of following suit. However, the struggle between the two armies is depicted as that between two caterpillar-like armoured entities equipped with prickles. It is a battle not of individuals but of masses. Nature and the cosmos resolve the affair; anyone rising up against them will perish.



The Suicide of Saul

Bruegel has shifted the scene of the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines to an extensive landscape, portraying not the struggle between individual soldiers but that between masses of fused armoured entities equipped with prickles. People like King Saul and his squire, who have both thrown themselves upon their swords, appear small and insignificant against the broad expanse of nature.



The Suicide of Saul (detail)



The Suicide of Saul (detail)




The Three Soldiers


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