Path to the Maypole of Wisdom

A Choice for Spiritual Ethics,Virtues and Uprightness in our times

Path to the Maypole of Wisdom

Bruegel: the Apocalypse Within

In his book Art as History, History as Art Jheronimus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Assembling knowledge not setting puzzlesStephen Graham Hitchins  challenges many of the assumptions about Jheronimus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The academic contest to unravel these two has never abated. What exactly is the meaning of their work is one of art history’s blood sports. The answer lies in the cultural relationship between the artwork and its audience. Both artists demonstrate social, economic and political resonances in paintings that are numbingly familiar yet still poorly understood. There is social, religious, and political motivation in their art, an art that is frequently described in art historical isolation. For Bosch the image was a morality play about the paucity of good in a world teeming with evil monsters. For Bruegel it was frequently a reference to political events.Read here

  • The lessons of History  by Stephen Graham Hitchins

Stories only happen to people who can tell them” Chris Nawrat

The past is not past. It is present here and now” James Joyce

MANY ARE CAUTIOUS about the lessons of history. The problem with the lessons of history is that we try to transpose two different situations and pretend that what happened in one year or in one era, is directly relevant to today. It is indirectly relevant, but if one tries to draw too precise a parallel we are liable to make mistakes. Acton said that history has nothing to teach us except that history has nothing to teach us; something we would do well to remember.

History is inescapable. We carry our past with us: the burden of humanity. But our past does not own us; we own it.

It is not history but memory, reformed and remade in our own image. Memory is historical but it is transient and partial. Memory may be unreliable; its cousin, nostalgia, can be irrational; our judgements upon it frequently relative. History is to society what memory is to the individual; without it, we do not know who we are and cannot make decisions about where we should be going. The past is the only map we have. With disarming candour, Voltaire described history as a set of tricks we play on the dead. It can at times seem just one puzzle after another. But then, the dead always escape us. They will never perform for our entertainment, never produce another picture. If we wait to hear from them “We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.”

Stories are born of history. They are not beholden to it – and neither is art that seeks to portray those stories. An individual work of art is a very minor episode in history but it can shape our image of the past. The artist, just like historians, presents a version of events placing them in a certain light. Every time a brush sets out on a journey across a canvas a world is being created. A touch here, a dab there, an effect of the light in the background can prove their empathy or show off their mastery. The dead will always escape us.

We are left chasing shadows. All history is a construction, telling stories that coexist with asking questions. Artifice, illusion, deceit even. As with art so with history. The artist’s task was ‘to make you feel… to make you see’ according to Joseph Conrad. Historians cannot all be artists, but something of that spirit should inform their task. While the nature of memory may be constant, the nature of history has changed radically over my lifetime, for better and for worse. The divide between the academic and the popular has become a chasm. Much of historical scholarship is cluttered with unintelligible jargon, driven by the concerns of the present and failing to convey just how different the past really was.

What a difference 500 years makes. Or does it? Art and history frame things in different ways. Occasionally they become one. History at its most basic requires two things, first for something to happen, and second for someone to tell the story. Bosch and Bruegel told the stories, alerting us to what people were thinking and what was happening at a turning point in history. read more

  • Politics – a paradise postponed by Stephen Graham Hitchins

Reframing expectations

“In art, one has to kill one’s father” Pablo Picasso

PICTURES change everything. If there can be no art without history, neither can there be history without images. Without images we are lost. The more powerful the more significant and important. A Buddhist monk immolating himself, a prisoner’s twisted expression as a bullet fired from a pistol at the end of an outstretched arm enters his brain, a little girl running naked down a path, her skin alight from napalm, a hooded man standing on a box, with electrical wires dangling from his outstretched hands, are seared into our collective memory. They inhabit our unconscious as deeply as the pictures of two skyscrapers collapsing in Manhattan.

But pictures may conceal as much as they reveal. Without the pictures taken by a small group of amateurish, under-trained reserve soldiers placed at the cutting edge of the so-called ‘war on terror’ and ordered to deliver information, nobody would have known what happened at Abu Graib – or been punished. And the pictures were part of the torture. The prisoners were threatened with the photographs being made public. The photograph of the hooded prisoner quickly achieved iconic status. There were many other pictures, thousands of them, many depicting more serious abuse, but its “fascination resides, in large part, in its mystery and inscrutability – in all that is concealed by all that is revealed. It is an image of carnival weirdness; this upright body shrouded from head to foot; those wires; that pose that recalls, of course, the crucifixion; the peaked hood that carries so many vague and ghoulish associations.”

 The complicity that followed, the blind eyes turned, the cover-up, the self- deception, the cowardice, the indiscipline and the incompetence infested every link in the chain of command, from the 372nd Military Police to the White House, yet the soldiers, who we now understand had taken the photographs in a calculated effort to protect themselves knowing their aggressive orders from the euphemistically titled ‘Other Government Agencies’ were wrong, were the only ones prosecuted.

No pictures no crime; the exposé became the cover up. The irony was absolute. Fear and ideology had led to the undermining and evasion of conventions and rules, and a visceral disdain for international obligations. The more powerful the images, the more significant and important. Some photographs of alleged abuse by soldiers in Iraq were later admitted to be fakes. Eyewitnesses admitted the events had taken place but the images were later proved to be false. But frequently the news cycle moves so fast that the real story gets little coverage once it is spelled out.

Photo Op 2005 “It was originally printed on newsprint as a poster for the G8 protests in 2005.” Where the art world meets the art of the manipulated image. Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps created a ‘photo op’ that defines the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Apparently delighted with himself and what he has achieved the subject’s subsequent notoriety means some viewers will take it as fact. On 9 October 2013 the Evening Standard headlined ‘Tony Blair’s crazed selfie’. The collective subconscious viewed it as true. The Imperial War Museum North chose it as the image for its campaign to advertise the exhibition Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War. However, the owners of the advertising space, CBS Outdoor, ClearChannel and JCDecaux, banned it.

In an age when it has never been easier to erase history, people cropped or airbrushed out of a photograph, we also inhabit a digital age without the capacity to forget; social net-working moments enshrined in cyberspace, search engines knowing our every click of a mouse, nothing has an expiration date any more, the virtue of forgetting lost as we are condemned to be encumbered by a past we can no longer leave.

No one ever called Google the first draft of history but search algorithms appear to have become sacred. Abu Graib has been rebranded, today’s solution to almost everything, as Baghdad’s Central Prison. The world of alternative media was flooded with fake images almost immediately after the release of genuine images of atrocity committed by US troops in Iraq.

Specialists in deliberate disinformation, together with the gullible, will today act as willing conduits for such things. That is the way of the world. The minefield of deception that they create breeds confusion, distraction and downgrades credibility of reality.

 It is a perfect spiral created to discredit the truth and create a backlash of opinion. The truth is eclipsed by the hoax, the hoax is uncovered, the truth is downgraded, reaction is diluted as each seed of doubt is planted and cultivated.

The truth is rarely black and white. Acting from the best of motives, Robert Capa may have faked ‘the falling soldier’ shot in Spain on 5 September 1936. If Capa did fake that photograph, to many it now seems indefensible. It is still an astonishing image so does it matter? It made more people take notice of the war in Spain as it caught or purported to catch, the moment of death, the tumble into oblivion, that imbalance, the empty landscape, a life emptying out. It may be an artistic shot but it is not art, it was supposed to be the truth, veracity, the real deal. It is now easier than ever to fake a photograph. Perhaps it should not matter, but it does, especially when men are still dying in ragged clothes, in the sun, on a forsaken hillside far away. 50 kilometres away.

Pictures can change everything. Bosch saw the world wallowing in evil, sunk in sin. Bruegel on the other hand saw people only sunk in drudgery, toil, hardship and poverty, in a fight for survival. He also saw them being persecuted and subjected to a vicious occupation, overseen by one of his best clients. He had progressively to hide more and more about what he really felt and believed. There is no doubt Bruegel painted violence well because he lived in a violent world.

Spend time looking at some of Bruegel’s panels and yes, they are funny, vital, dazzling, all those brilliantly choreographed crowds, the luxurious detail, but they can also be brilliantly subversive, haunting, administering a delayed frisson, a slowly gathering shock; it is the thrill of sudden intuition, and then revelation, an epiphany.

When the Bruegel effect kicks in it can haunt you for ever. …. As stated at the beginning, if pictures are puzzles then art historians are the detectives, but that simply presenting the facts does not solve a problem, they have to be pieced together, analysed and interpreted. As it is with Bruegel. Similarly being a Christian.

A Christian is like a detective in a crime novel. The evidence points in one direction but the detective’s intuition, based on a clue that everyone else has overlooked, shows that the truth is rather different. So it is with Bruegel. With Bruegel and his images of tragedy and human cruelty we have to go back to the hidden clue in Jesus, ‘God among us, sharing our plight and raising us to a new eternal dimension of living’.

Was Bruegel a Protestant, by persuasion, inclination or practice? Even if he was not considered to have been inclined towards Protestantism, his work shows a Protestant sympathy. The Catholic Church certainly seems to have lost him. But as Edna O’Brien wrote of James Joyce: “Leaving the Church is not the same as leaving God”.

Bruegel was a chameleon, could operate according to wherever he was, assimilate himself and doubtless manipulate people. He passed through the Protestant needle, and for reasons doubtless of self- preservation could pretend he was well out of it. Hardly a shard of light has been cast on this…..

To view the change from full frontal attack on evil of Bosch to the apparently subtle allegories satirising human weakness in Bruegel’s world, is to miss what the ‘Second Bosch’ is really about.

The soubriquet is more accurate than it is flattery. Style aside, the religious intensity of Bruegel is too often overlooked in favour of jolly peasants.

It is the religious pictures, so often ignored by modern scholarship, that reflect the age he lived in, and that will engage us here. Their significance is concealed – the critic, like a preacher, having to reveal what is submerged is somehow central to our idea of art. The superficially unchallenging does not prompt the usual ‘What does it mean?’ But with Bruegel we discover, it is about meaning itself.

  • A New Terror: The Fall of the Rebel Angels

Europe might be taking shape, reform in the air, scientific discovery, mathematics, overseas exploration, a sense of freedom, liberation, curiosity, newness, rebirth; yet still the old world lived on. The world had changed fundamentally but Bruegel had not changed with it. The Fall of the Rebel Angels is a painting that comes out of a medieval mind. It is not an image of the modern world.

Note about the video: Pieter Bruegel’s 1562 painting The Fall of the Rebel Angels depicts the conflict between the archangel Michael and the forces of heaven – rendered with white robes, elegant wings, and flowing hair – and Satan’s rebel angels – which have taken all manner of grotesque forms, chimeras of human, animal, and artificial elements – each totally different.

Aside from these strange entities, two things stood out to me. A pillar of angel bodies – innumerable powerful beings locked in a battle beyond understanding – stretching into the distance represents the unfathomable scale of the conflict, of which Bruegel depicts a minuscule slice, in space and time. But, stripped from its narrative context, the painting would become even more bizarre: an expanse of writhing, seething, weird matter. This piece pans between these different layers and characters, bound together by the narrative of the rebel angels’ fall.

The opening quotes Nicolas Gombert’s motet Media vita in morte sumus – ‘In the midst of life, we are in death’ – written at a similar time and place to Bruegel’s painting.

The age of discovery had arrived but fear of the unknown remained. Man’s horizons were expanding in every direction, minds were being liberated, the intellectual repercussions enormous. Man was in the process of being liberated from his past. But for Bruegel the time was ripe for painting The Archangel Michael Slaying the Apocalyptic Dragon. It is an image that comes from a world lost to us.

A late medieval man looks back. Bruegel had arrived at a personal crossroads.

He was moving away from printmaking to concentrate on painting. He had changed his signature from Brueghel to Bruegel. His subject matter moved away from the fun and games of paintings loaded with human behaviour, to imagery within a religious and moral framework that confronted the ideological conflict of the age, the personal dilemmas facing everyone, and a society threatened with dissolution.

The artist’s long and winding road through the mountains is an arduous road to truth – for Bruegel, a saint and us…

The modern Catholic Catechism teaches that angels are a ‘truth of faith’, meaning roughly that if you believe in them they are true, and they are true because you believe – to which there is no adequate riposte. The importance of angels to divine enterprise makes them naturally hierarchical. The nine medieval orders still exist, those around the throne of God, the front three Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; then a midfield of Dominations, Virtues and Powers, with a back row of Principalities, Archangels and Angels. This is where we find the heroes of the angel world, the archangels, blond, muscled and shining, including Michael who slays the Devil.

In the Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Bruegel’s poster boy Michael, clad in golden armour, is falling on the apocalyptic dragon. In a grand whirl of perpetual motion set in “a unique spatial perspective” Michael leads the assault by an angelic army in its assault against the rebels.

And there was a great battle in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon fought with his angels: And they prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who seduceth the whole world; and he was cast unto the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying: Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: because the accuser of our brethren is cast forth, who accused them before our God day and night.

Bruegel’s painting is one of the finest and most original illustrations of this passage from the Apocalypse. It was one of five paintings Bruegel produced around 1562. It marks the stage in his early thirties when Bruegel turned away from printmaking and concentrated on painting, and the beginning of a productive surge that stayed at the same high tempo until the year before he died.

Europe might be taking shape, reform in the air, scientific discovery, mathematics, overseas exploration, a sense of freedom, liberation, curiosity, newness, rebirth; yet still the old world lived on. The world had changed fundamentally but Bruegel had not changed with it. This is a painting that comes out of a medieval mind. It is not an image of the modern world.

The age of discovery had arrived but fear of the unknown remained. Man’s horizons had expanded in every direction. As minds were liberated the intellectual repercussions were enormous. Man was in the process of being liberated from his past.

But for Bruegel the time was ripe for a painting of Archangel Michael Slaying the Apocalyptic Dragon, the alternative title given to The Fall of the Rebel Angels. It is an image that comes from a world lost to us.

But why would he choose to announce a new focus for his career with this image? Was it part of a series of three paintings? Why did Bruegel’s work swing decisively away from the format, style, technique and composition of his encyclopaedic enterprise in Netherlandish Proverbs, and The Battle Between Carnival and Lent both from 1559, and Children’s Games from 1560?

What made him move away from a focus on these inventories of human activity; one of over 100 proverbs, one a Rabelaisian romp of wickedness and foolishness, and one showing the antics of 250 children?

The Fall of the Rebel Angels or The Archangel Michael Slaying the Apocalyptic Dragon, Dulle Griet or Mad Meg, and The Triumph of Death.All three panels are again the same overall size. The link is provided by the Apocalypse.

Notwithstanding the “predilection of his age for symbolism and allegory”, the eulogy of Ortelius that Bruegel ‘depicted many things that cannot be depicted’, the search for hidden truths, and the idea that this artist was deliberately obscure and cryptic, considering the dangers inherent in being openly critical, a degree of circumspection is only to be expected. With these three works, here we also have Bruegel’s major excursion into the world of Jheronimus Bosch. The first, the Rebel Angels, was at one time attributed to Bosch, the formal language of the second, Dulle Griet, is distinctly reminiscent of Bosch and the third, the Triumph of Death, has all the apocalyptic power of Bosch – and more; a landscape of death, one where the promise of redemption and resurrection is absent. God is nowhere to be seen.

The three paintings from 1559-60, the first Bruegels with unquestioned attribution, are submersed in humanity. With detail piled on detail, their loose, fragmented composition is suggestive of the commercial art of a printmaker’s imagery. Their very complexity has led to their popularity. They are picture puzzles and everyone, not just art historians, plays the game of decoding them. But they are more than an interpretive challenge. The multitude of picturesque scenes are superficially frivolous, satirical entertainment, cataloguing the human menagerie, but these images are also mocking and moralising, an ironic commentary on man’s folly, denouncing the futility of much of man’s endeavour as a pictorial theatre of the absurd.

All the world’s a stage /And all the men and women merely players”, just for our entertainment. But many of the ‘children’ in the third picture are in fact adults:They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages” suggests we are looking at people at play, an image of homo ludens, or just possibly that the painting could have been the beginning of an ages of man series on their own. However, the child-adults, none of whom appear particularly happy, bring to mind not just Huizinga’s play element in culture, but also the lines of St Paul in Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child”.

Children or adults? It is all too easy to over-sentimentalise childhood or to deny its complexity. But just as Jesus suggested that adults have a lot to learn about God from their children, is Bruegel proposing the same thing?

A child’s response to the nature of existence is typically one of wonderment and joy. Children instinctively regard the world as a gift to be celebrated and enjoyed, which, as it happens, is precisely how Christianity thinks of the world as well. For, whilst a grim-faced Puritanism hijacked some versions of the Christian faith, the real thing is fundamentally an act of celebration, a response of thanksgiving to the joy-provoking character of existence. Was that Christian message hidden in the play?

  • Note: First, let’s look at what Scripture says about, and then take some time to respond to God’s word in faith:
  • John 1:12-13 says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Galatians 4:6-7 says, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Finally, 2 Corinthians 6:18 says, “And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” Through adoption into God’s family you are now a co-heir with Christ. Romans 8:17 says that we are God’s children, “and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” You were born again into God’s family when you asked Jesus to be your Lord and Savior.
  •  To be the child of God is to be loved, liked, and completely cared for.
  • So how can you live in response to God’s word? How can you get out of the mindset of an orphan? You must have faith that God is who he says he is and believe he will do what he’s promised to do. Romans 10:17 says that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” You have heard the word of the Lord today. You are his child. He promises to provide for you. So have faith! Faith isn’t something you just conjure up. It’s a response to God’s faithfulness. God has and will be faithful to you. Allow his word to stir up faith within you today. Live in response to his promises and allow the peace and joy of being God’s child to lay an unshakable foundation for you today.


The 1560s was no time for children’s games.

Amused by each of these spectacles of humanity, people miss the underlying seriousness of Bruegel in everything he does. Bruegel transports us back over four centuries to a time when everyone looks to be having fun. Where did all the good times go? Within 50 years of this painting the European world appears to be have been struck by an epidemic of depression that plunged young and old into months and even years of morbid lethargy and relentless terrors. We seem to have been living with it ever since. The decline in opportunities for traditional pleasures is later reflected in John Bunyan’s march to a life free of fun. In Pilgrim’s Progress carnival is the portal to Hell, just as pleasure in any form, sexual, gustatory, convivial, is the devil’s snare. It seems that while the medieval peasant enjoyed the festivities as an escape from work, the Puritan embraced work as an escape from terror.

Progress came with a price. The new world had not yet made a Faustian pact with the Devil to gain its brilliant advances in science, exploration and industry but it had swept away some of the traditional cures for the depression that those achievements brought in tow.

But still, the old world had its own demons to fight. As visitors to the museums where this group of three pictures hang, smile, laugh even, and check those inventories of activity, the link between laughter and spirituality goes unnoticed.

The ability to laugh can help us through the best and worst of times. Its importance for our spiritual wellbeing is generally neglected.

Gibson commented that “Bruegel’s contemporaries would have reacted at least to some of his art with amusement and outright laughter” and that his moral lessons were often concealed, “accessible only to the more astute viewers” but he does not make the direct link to spirituality. Because laughter is spontaneous, because it can arrive unbidden and because it is fun, a laugh is often dismissed as less profound than crying. Glee is generally seen as a human response less moving than misery. Soldiers at the front carry laughter as a weapon. They have a triumphant armoury of humour. Oh, it’s a lovely war. Comedy in war zones is a healing and infectious form of resistance. To make light together of what scares us is one way to resist darkness, the belly laugh as an act of courage. Laughter has power, and the power to provoke laughter in others is a gift.

It is impossible to imagine a genuinely spiritual person who cannot get a joke and is unable to laugh. And that must mean sometimes unable to laugh at him or herself. A laugh that rises over all boundaries, a celebration to unite us all in tears of joy: Bruegel comes close, but he also reminds us of our own shortcomings. Why does the Devil always have the best tunes?

The absurdity of Bruegel’s characters comes straight out of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, a fantasy and satire on the self-deception on much of human endeavour, mocking human pretensions, monks and theologians, the scholastic intellectual substructure that supported late Medieval piety.

Erasmus cites Democritus who was supposedly constantly amused by the spectre of humanity. The book first appeared in 1511, and underwent numerous revisions and additions until the last corrections in 1532. It was an instant success. The book’s narrator is Folly who portrays life as an absurd spectacle lambasting the foibles and frailties of mankind, only to praise the ‘folly’ of simple Christian piety, the pious ideals in which Erasmus had been educated, and spirituality of The Imitation of Christ, four treatises from the 15th century attributed to Thomas â Kempis.

Erasmus and À Kempis were both Augustinian canons, more importantly both had their roots in the devotio moderna to which Erasmus remained faithful to the end of his life.

The text of Folly is a potent mix of wit, wisdom and wordplay, but it culminates in a serious indictment of churchmen, and sets out the virtues of a Christian way of life that St Paul says looks to the world like folly: “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not in wisdom of speech, less the cross of Christ should be void. For the word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness; but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God”.

This is the crossroads of belief where Renaissance Christianity and Medieval religion collide, and evangelical humanists take the turning signposted scripture. The pilgrim’s way had forked and despite the lure of side roads such as ‘theological backlash’ and ‘millenarianism’, two major routes had opened up, and remained open, to choose from.

Bruegel stood at that crossroads and  seemed never quite made up his mind which direction to go in. As he wavered in his decision, he was also sensibly never open about exactly what he believed. “He lived at a time and place in which free and open expression of certain ideas could mean death.

But he left a lot of clues. As ever, we must be careful. …

  • Dulle Griet

Bertolt Brecht thought her beautiful, “the Fury defending her pathetic household goods with the sword. The world at the end of its tether”. Gibson saw a wild-eyed crone leading the ravaging horde, and Karel van Mander’s haunting phrase had her “looting at the mouth of Hell”, far from his characterisation of Bruegel as “a supremely comic artist”.

The spirit of the painting is contained in two proverbs: “One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market, four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon” and “she could plunder even in front of hell and remain unscathed”.


Around this mythic figure a world peopled by monsters is consumed by fire and war. Hell and earth are merging beneath a blazing red sky in one infernal landscape.




The mouth of Hell is a scaly leviathan face mutating out of a hillside, gaping jaws crammed with sinners. We are in the “shape-shifting, hallucinatory world of Bosch”.

Griet charges forward, a harridan with hair streaming out from under her helmet, a breastplate over her dress, leading an army of women knocking the damned out of way, looting homes, ransacking the ruined land, and defying the army. Armies pillaged as a matter of routine in Europe in the 16th century. It was an acknowledged way for soldiers to be paid. If a city under siege did not surrender it could expect to be sacked. Three days was the allotted time to loot, pillage and, led here by their hero the old hag Griet, an anti-hero, energetic, courageous, the tragicomic spirit of survival, even Satan cannot control the mob laying waste to the city. She would be the ideal model for Mother Courage, an essentially courageous, resilient, indomitable, and inspiring symbol of humanity’s ability to continue after all that hashappened, if it can find the courage. She is a survivor. An irresistible force who, like Griet, characterised her times. ….

Neither is it really credible that in the frantic urgency of Meg striding across towards the jaws of Hell we see “Fortune impersonating Spanish tyranny and wealth”.

However, events and conditions in Antwerp and the activity by seditious rebels in the Low Countries at the time may well be a reflected in the picture, especially seen with topical hints of the city’s civic imagery – both the young maid of Antwerp and the Antwerp Giant that had appeared one in front of the other in the Antwerp Ommegang of 1561.

Some has pointed to the perversion “of these two basic images of civic pride into the greedy and violent old bacchante” and the implications for an abused culture that fostered a spirit of informing on ones neighbours with all the appalling consequences that inevitably ensued…. Seeing the painting at first hand, its heroine is threatening. Dulle meant angry, mad or foolish, Griet was a variant of Margot, Magrite, and Greta. Griet and Meg were also nicknames for big guns of the period. A century before Bruegel, a huge cannon manufactured in Ghent was known as Dulle Griet. Is Bruegel making fun of noisy aggressive women, the surprising degree of freedom and independence enjoyed by Netherlandish women, a comment on the number of sovereigns and regents around 1560 who were women, or a prophesy about the folly of the Church and the greed of the rebels leading to civil war?

Moderation was not to be the order of the day. The times were fanatical, and the acute political and religious strife is yet again reflected in the pessimism and the independence of Bruegel’s point of view. While the image combines elements of wrath, avarice, envy, and gluttony, all of which have been put forward as explanations for this satire on sin, it is anger that really drives this painting.

The artist’s drawings and engravings of the vices have been plundered for their motifs, but it is Ira that mostly corresponds and holds the key. Both images are dominated by a striding giant, both characters wear helmets, breastplates and one gauntlet, both picture the entrance to Hell on the left behind a tree, both include a ship with a globe, etc., but the painting is not simply a new version of the print.

Just as the origins of some of his earlier paintings have been attributed to various texts and literary sources, proverbs and scripture,but don’t forget the Apocalypse.

  • Note: Can we say that Dulle Griet represents the Whore of Babylon?

  • The Whore of Babylon or Babylon the Great is a symbolic female figure and also place of evil mentioned in the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Her full title is stated in Revelation 17 (verse 5) as Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth (Ancient Greek: μυστήριον, Βαβυλὼν ἡ μεγάλη, ἡ μήτηρ τῶν πορνῶν καὶ τῶν βδελυγμάτων τῆς γῆς; transliterated mystērion, Babylōn hē megalē, hē mētēr tōn pornōn kai tōn bdelygmatōn tēs gēs).
  • Passages from Revelation:
  • The “great whore” of the Book of Revelation is featured in chapter 17:
1 And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters:
2 With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.
3 So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.
4 And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication:
6 And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.
9 And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.
10 And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he comes, he must continue a short space.
11 And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goes into perdition.
12 And the ten horns which thou saw are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast.
15 And he said unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.
18 And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth.


The whore of Babylon as illustrated in Hortus deliciarum by Herrad of Landsberg, 1180.

The Whore is associated with the Antichrist and the Beast of Revelation by connection with an equally evil kingdom.The word “Whore” can also be translated metaphorically as “Idolatress“. The Whore’s apocalyptic downfall is prophesied to take place in the hands of the image of the beast with seven heads and ten horns. There is much speculation within Christian eschatology on what the Whore and beast symbolize as well as the possible implications for contemporary interpretations.

  • The beast with seven heads and ten horns.
  • John saw it “rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.” (Revelation 13:1)
  • Revelation 17:7-18 King James Version (KJV)

    And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou marvel? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and ten horns.

    The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.

    And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.

    10 And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.

    11 And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition.

    12 And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast.

    13 These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast.

    14 These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful.

    15 And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.

    16 And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire.

    17 For God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.

    18 And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.

    Brueghel lives in the time of the  Great Apostasy:

    The Great Apostasy is a concept within Christianity, identifiable at least from the time of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, to describe a perception that the early apostolic Church has fallen away from the original faith founded by Jesus and promulgated through his twelve Apostles. Protestants used the term to describe the perceived fallen state of traditional Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic Church, because they claim it changed the doctrines of the early church and allowed traditional Greco-Roman culture (i.e.Greco-Roman mysteries, deities of solar monism such as Mithras and Sol Invictus, pagan festivals and Mithraic sun worship and idol worship) into the church on its own perception of authority. Because it made these changes using claims of tradition and not from scripture, the Church — in the opinion of those adhering to this concept — has fallen into apostasy.A major thread of this perception is the suggestion that, to attract and convert people to Christianity, the church in Rome incorporated pagan beliefs and practices within the Christian religion, mostly Graeco-Roman rituals, mysteries, and festivals.For example, Easter has been described as a pagan substitute for the Jewish Passover, although neither Jesus nor his Apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival.

    Reformation view:

    Whore of Babylon wearing the papal tiara from a woodcut in Luther Bible

    Historicist interpreters commonly used the phrase “Whore of Babylon” to refer to the Catholic Church. Reformation writers Martin Luther (1483–1546, author of On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church), John Calvin (1509–1564), and John Knox (1510–1572, author of The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women) taught this association.

    Most early Protestant Reformers believed, and the modern Seventh-day Adventist Church teaches, that in Bible prophecy a woman represents a church. “I have likened the daughter of Zion to a lovely and delicate woman.” (Jeremiah 6:2 ) A harlot, it is argued, is representative of a church that has been unfaithful:

    Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry

        And children of harlotry,

        For the land has committed great harlotry

        By departing from the LORD.” (Hosea 1:2

    They also believed that the primary location of this unfaithful church is stated in the same chapter.

    And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth.” (Revelation 17:18)

    The connection noted above on the seven hills of Rome is argued to locate the church

    See also Historicist interpretations of the Book of Revelation

    Identification of the Pope as the Antichrist was written into Protestant creeds such as the Westminster Confession of 1646. The identification of the Roman Catholic Church with the Whore of Babylon is kept in the Scofield Reference Bible (whose 1917 edition identified “ecclesiastical Babylon” with “apostate Christendom headed by the Papacy”).

Stephen Graham Hitchins concludes about Dulle Griet in his book:

  • Bruegel is anything but open and clear.  Dulle Griet “would have met Erasmus’s standard for effective allegory” in that it exercised “the minds of the pious” sufficiently to satisfy “the humanist’s liking for complexity, obscurity and moral significance”.
  • Complexity and obscurity were a defence against accusations of heresy or even simple criticism of the Church in the Low Countries that at the time could lead to execution. The dangers of life in Antwerp were brought into sharp focus for Bruegel at this time by the need for his friend Christopher Plantin to leave the city when he was accused of printing  heretical books. Griet may transcend literal interpretation but she does embody both the characteristics of an allegorical Xanthippe and Erasmian Folly, a hypocritical Christian at war for anything but a ‘just’ cause.
  • The painting is a grand visual metaphor. It is built up like a medieval sermon or the Adages of Erasmus, example piled on example, drawing on various authors, the classics, the Bible, popular stories, and legends. In this case the vice of anger is extended to what was considered its extreme form, madness. Erasmus had edited Seneca, whose On Anger made the connection. “All the authors that are likely sources for Bruegel’s ideas and imagery in Dulle Griet – Seneca, Horace, Erasmus, Prudentius and Virgil – sold well in this period and would have been familiar to a humanist audience.” To Erasmus war was anger and his influence was all-pervasive.

  • Echoes of Bosch BRUEGEL’S SERIES of Seven Deadly Sins was completed in 1558. It is entirely in the style of Jheronimus Bosch. (In contrast, the artist’s Virtues completed two years later display none of the Boschian phantasmagoria so evident in the Sins, and point more to salvation through scripture rather than observance of the sacraments.

The Last Judgement

The Descent of Christ into Limbo

  • The two series are linked by The Last Judgement executed in 1558, and connected to an image from 1561 The Descent of Christ into Limbo. It has always been assumed that Bruegel used a Boschian idiom for the Sins because it was more commercially viable. It may also be because the style of Bosch was readily associated with the world of sin or it may have been a reflection of the fact that his beliefs really were developing, if not actually changing. The deliberate adoption of a style for either a commercial purpose or interpretation of the image is a new and intriguing concept.

  • Whatever the reason, the large central figure of Ira complements the other six designs, all of which feature personification of a sin surrounded by further detailed scenes of depravity in a never-ending sequence, in other words reminiscent of Bosch. The visual echoes are everywhere. The inversion of scale, the hybrid creatures, amphibians, crustaceans, lizards, they are all there intertwined. In 1556 Bruegel executed the drawings that were the basis of the Big Fish Eat Little Fish engraving that was signed ‘Hieronymus Bos/inuentor’, and The Temptation of St Anthony.

  • They both demonstrate the disciplined style of draughtsmanship he developed for engravers to follow. They are also inspired by, and derived from Bosch to the point of plagiarising his predecessor’s visual language. By emulating the bestial and the infernal aspects of Bosch’s imagery at this time, it implies that the publisher certainly considered their “fearful bite” still relevant to his market, something not everyone agrees with today. The publisher, Hieronymus Cock, thought Bosch worth resurrecting. Thus Bruegel was transformed into the ‘second Bosch’, so-called by Lodovico Guicciardini and the soubriquet stuck.  What is clear,  is just how much of a stern moralist the artist was: “Bruegel’s frightening, diabolical images offer evidence of the hellish everlasting life awaiting us after the Last Judgement and at the same time confront us with the monstrous consequences of our sins during life on earth, namely the loss of dignity and spiritual purity.”
  • The Last Judgement is derived from the Apocalypse of St John. It shows the separation of the virtuous from sinners in a conscious visual echo of Bosch. In 1558 it was a topical subject. However, Bruegel’s image is medieval, reflecting the Catholic concept of God sitting in judgement rather than the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and, in this case, really is a Last Judgement.
  • The Descent of Christ into Limbo is generally dated 1561 (the date is clearly written later and by another hand) but could probably be from several years earlier when considering the style and the Bosch-type imagery. It takes its reference from a source used by Dante, who must have relished its dramatic intensity, the Gospel of Nicodemus or Acti Pilati from the Deutero-Canonical books known by Protestants as the Apocrypha. The drawing unusually locates Christ in a luminous bubble .(The quotation from Psalm 27 that appears at the foot is a strange choice as it relates to the return of the Ark, is sometimes applied to the ascension of Christ to Heaven, ‘or into the heart’s of his people’ .)…


  • Netherlands, nether world: The Triumph of Death by Stephen Graham Hitchin

I know that thou wilt deliver me to death, where a house is appointed for every one that liveth” Job

IN ABOUT 1562, Bruegel painted a scene from the ultimate war. The Triumph of Death is unmistakably a war painting, a history painting. In a panoramic landscape, Death’s army rages, innumerable, invincible. Thousands of skeletons mass behind coffin-shields under the banner of death. As a skeleton beats the war drums, they deploy new technologies including a giant box raised by a lever into which men and women are savagely shoved.

Some fight back, but these isolated acts of courage have no significance. It is a reminder of the never-ending truckloads of victims arriving at the railway sidings at Auschwitz with its specially extended platform. Another army of death approaches in a bony column; people are executed on the hilltops by skeletons swinging mighty swords, their bodies displayed on circular raised platforms.

There are ships burning in the distance, a red glow of horror beyond the horizon: the same terrible scenes are taking place everywhere in the world, “fusing the medieval with the spirit of the Renaissance”, it is demoralisingly prophetic, a picture to drive its audience to abandon hope.

Even admirers are repelled. We could not be more unsettled. We might as well be looking into the soiled interior of a modern mind as into an artist’s half a millennium ago.

Rather the hordes of nameless fears that took shape in his mind have an inner legitimacy which their demonic forms merely serve. Another terrible century and its horrors transmuted into art, a lonely witness to monstrosity.

It is impossible to miss the taste of history in this picture. The unstoppable army of skeletons has something acutely satirical about it; this is what war is like.

In its very fantasy and excess, Bruegel’s painting reveals truths never officially acknowledged about the way the world is. Bruegel is a realist – even a social realist. This is why his art appealed to socialist writers such as WH Auden and Bertolt Brecht. He takes the mad, foolish, impossible fantastic realm mapped by Bosch and demonstrates, with brutal peasant humour, that it is not so far after all from the everyday cruelties, injustices and stupidities we accept as natural.

Bosch was not mad, Bruegel says – he was a prophet.

You do not need to close your eyes to see monstrosities. They are all around us. Catholicism was no longer a page in Aquinas. It was closer now to death in the afternoon.

Money, war, religion – the insanities that disorder Bruegel’s world are all too recognisable. Bosch would give concrete and tangible shape to the fears that haunted the minds of the Middle Ages at the very last moment when old ideas were still plausible. He could pile horror upon horror, fires, torments, demons, plagues and death to an audience that believed it all.

Bosch was an architect of the unreal, Bruegel a historian of the horrors we know. With their grinning skeletons, severed limbs and delirious visions, Bosch and Bruegel had a lot in common. But only one of them both experienced and saw the truth behind the nightmare.

Bruegel was involved. He participated. And then he painted. The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Dulle Griet, The Triumph of Death.

If these paintings are a set of three, we fall out of Heaven with the angels already having taken the form of monsters, arrive in Hell where a group of militant housewives are attacking the devils, and end in an apocalyptic wasteland of death.

This panoramic vision of the afterlife is so potent, haunting and grotesque, so terrifying, so terminal, so urgent that it presses against the door of our time and can be bracketed with Goya, Géricault, and Picasso as timeless. Bruegel’s pandemonium of Boschian hybrids take us right into the landscape of hysteria, evil, cruelty and irrationality of northern Europe of the 16th century with its pogroms, religious wars, flagellants and messiahs proclaiming the Millennium’s imminent arrival.

We are there with a man seemingly without faith in anything but death.

Faced with such savage disgust at barbarity, one could forget one’s faith and still be faithful only if there was a possibility of salvation. One could remember the horrors and be faithless: unless; the only hope is that death is not the end.

Is there something to hope for, is there triumph in death?

Death itself has become a symbol of hopelessness, the means by which God destroys hope. Conjuring hope when apparently faced with hopelessness is the prospect facing Bruegel. We will not find it here – or can we?

The power of this moral allegorist to illustrate the cumulative despair this all created is unmatched. It is political art at its most powerful and timeless.

True believers could triumph over death if they were on the right side in the confrontation between vice and virtue. Faith and virtue will be rewarded, without which there is no hope.

The despair and hopelessness of The Triumph of Death is a sure sign that there will be no paradise on earth and that evil may triumph in the end. The earth has yielded up its dead, the end of the world is heralded, the battle has been lost, death is the ultimate victor, war itself is indicted at the court of life.

The Christian promise of resurrection and redemption has totally disappeared. Art usually founders before the fact. Not here. This does not fit into the genre of history painting, an image of important events real and imagined. Documentary evidence of brutality is manipulative, easy.

Bruegel’s present drifts into all our futures, suggesting the inescapable abstraction of modern violence. It has shocking immediacy and a timeless ripple of implication. Violence co-exists alongside contemplation. You cannot contain its meanings, just as you cannot finally know why men do what they do. Berger even thought it presaged the holocaust. It is just as Milton described the illumination of Hell, “… As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames / No light; but rather darkness visible / Served only to discover sights of woe, / Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace / And rest can never dwell, hope never comes / That comes to all, but torture without end…

Whilst each of this triumvirate have many sources for their inspiration, the one that links them is the Apocalypse: chapter 12 for The Fall of the Rebel Angels, chapters 8 and 9 for Dulle Griet (the seventh seal is opened, the earth is “ravaged by evil, while anger, greed, licentiousness, and ruin are rampant”) connecting with the final instalment in The Triumph of Death where armies of the dead lay siege to the living in a hellish apocalyptic end of everything – a last judgement without judgement, without choice.

A number of specific deaths seemed to signal “universal calamity”. If God has all the power – ‘Why’ demands Bruegel? He echoes Job asking: Why, why, why, why, why? They both know God has a hidden purpose but no matter how many times the prophet asks the question, there is no reply. God has the answers, our difficulty is that He does not have to reply now.

God is silent. Unless. If there is a possibility of salvation perhaps we can find some hope in the triumph of death after all? Who gave it that title? In the triumph there must be something? And if there is hope to be found, something everyone writing about this painting denies, then we have a parallel with the ‘ever pessimistic’ Bosch and the question of the Particular and Last Judgements, indications that in the depths of despair there is cause for optimism, even if it is only in the life to come.

Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, who held to ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ would have understood such conviction, that even in difficult times there are good things to be done, a conviction to be shared by believer and non-believer alike.

But it still begs the question: will “death be swallowed up in victory” – what will be the manner of our resurrection?

Faced with the Devil, Bruegel, like Job, displays a provocative theodicy in attempting to find vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil: undeserved evil is morally necessary in order to create the possibility of completely selfless love.

The details of that justification will be revealed at the Day of Judgement. The ambiguous end to Job (he is blessed but his moral trials continue) leaves the reader of the book and of Bruegel, not knowing where he or she stands.

As we look into an unsparing vision of eternal peril, we are surely haunted by the demand for justice, provoked into passing judgement, as we stand condemned in the harshest judgement for making the wrong choices. There is ‘no reason’ in Job that merits the amount of evil that overtakes him, just as the sheer scale of the bestiality in Bruegel is incomprehensible.

Is the painting a Last Judgement?For the wages of sin is death. But the grace of God, life everlasting, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The picture does not imply there is anything after death, nor does it purport to look beyond death, images of an afterlife are absent.

But as the Book of Job puts God on trial, so Bruegel’s battlefield scene of inexorable conflict with its anticipated horror of warfare ahead, brutalised lives, and crushed hopes, asks questions about the impending military menace from the gathering storm, the relentless advance of its new professional armies, their ranks of death drilled with martial precision, and any hope of peace on earth fast disappearing, and mankind itself on trial.

Rebellion against God will result in spiritual death at the hands of the massed armies of Satan.

Undated, ambiguous, yet certainly spiritual, infused with the medieval visual culture of death, the king in the lower left hand corner is forced to contemplate an hourglass with the sands fast running out for a world whose time was up. “Looking at this painting might cause one to lose his faith.”

For Bruegel, it is precisely in contemplating death that faith might grow stronger and receive a new light. He might even appreciate Simone Weil’s joke that “God’s love always makes Jobs out of us.

THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH was produced within the same period as two drawings made for prints, the aforementioned The Last Judgement and The Descent of Christ into Limbo, both of which feature hellish scenes redolent of the scene in Griet. They are all complementary.

And the style, techniques and colours of the three paintings are as one, and they all have the same elevated panoramic viewpoint. All of them reveal a profound debt to Bosch, use imagery derived from Bosch, and were possibly at some stage passed off as by him; all of them are medieval in concept, none of them display the outlook of a modern man, their popularity bolstered at the time of production by the religious debates that were raging.

The pictures look back to a time when the end of the world was confidently expected, a disintegrating age when Satan was triumphant. The self-conviction that mankind could master the world in which it lived, the optimism that a new era of exploration might unravel the secrets of God’s universe, a sense of liberation from the past, challenging new ideas and reform might all be in the air, printing had broken the Church’s monopoly on holy writ, the old world had set sail around the globe to discover the new – but the old world lived on in the paintings of Pieter Bruegel.

Probably painted in the same year as the Triumph of Death, was another painting equally full of military menace, and where the drama is unresolved, The Suicide of Saul in the Battle against the Philistines at Gilboa, one of the few paintings by Bruegel that illustrate an episode from the Old Testament. A popular subject for late-medieval miniatures, perhaps due to the fact that Saul turned to witchcraft for divination on the eve of the battle for Mount Gilboa, by the 16th century it was an unusual choice. Saul’s death was interpreted as a punishment for pride (it was among the proud that Dante met Saul in the Purgatorio) but this picture may well also demonstrate the struggle between good and evil as a metaphor for religious dissent, that could possibly be an indirect criticism of tyranny, even “a veiled political commentary against monarchy itself”, in displaying the artist’s obsession that year with soldiers.

They are there again at the Resurrection. The Resurrection of Christ is a drawing that has been poorly conserved and sadly suffered as a result. It shows the soldiers’ shock, distress, and lack of comprehension at the appearance of an angel (“the guards were struck with terror”) at the scene of Christ’s Resurrection, the final proof that Jesus was the Son of God, gave his life for humanity and returned to Heaven to await his Second Coming at the Day of Judgement.

Perhaps it is only when we accept that we will die that we can fully accept how alive we are right now.

Death brings perspective, then, it brings us back to life.

  • The Triumph of Death asks us how, now, will we live?

“Being here is so much.” Whether you believe death is the end, or, we must assume, like Bruegel, that it is only the beginning, this is not about the time he had left, but the time he had now.

To believe in the resurrection was to build your life around a promise and let your identity be shaped by it, and why, when you could not see things clearly, and felt lost, as Bruegel surely did here, you had to dig deep and live by that promise.

  • In a defining moment in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that ‘the truth will set you free’.

It is wrapped around by events that show how difficult it can be to face the truth, and a challenging thing to encounter, it is not an easy religious promise. His truth exposes hypocrisy, human weakness, and the pervasiveness of rebellion against God’s purposes.

It leads to hope and resurrection, but only through controversy and crucifixion. Hope defeats fear . Bruegel paints both his truth and fears. The Cross was a symbol of justice that was to be rendered as a consequence of every sin and wrong-doing. Actions always have consequences. Bruegel is showing that this horror will have consequences. A man staggering up the road to Golgotha was with us now. God was to be found deep in the rocky soil of Netherlandish lives.

The story for them was not a myth, it was hard, historical fact, and one which, for believers, carried a great truth, of God and themselves: the truth that, for eternity, love was stronger than death.

If Bruegel’s audience believed that Christ had broken the back of evil through His death and resurrection, it is quite clear that it would not be finally overcome until He came again in glory. The end was not the end. It was the goal, the end of a process, the ultimate disclosure ( what is the real meaning of Apocalypse: a revelation).

Yet difficult as it was, what Bruegel and his audience had to accept was that whilst the author of undeserved evil in the world God had a duty to answer all their questions, God did not have a duty to give the answers right now.

The despair and hopelessness of The Triumph of Death is a sure sign that there will be no paradise on the ‘immensity of the battlefield’ on earth, and that evil may triumph in the end.

Whether Bruegel considered himself an ‘ambassador for Christ’ this picture can be read as a strong Christian statement. Surely the message is that helplessness does not necessarily mean hopelessness.

  • Hope was the key virtue, despair a terrible sin.

Pain can be borne, finding strength in weakness is what St Paul called it. He also wrote that the hidden meaning of history was now revealed to be “Christ in you the hope of glory”.

It was the consummation of this hope that he looked for when, as he put it, God would be “all in all”.

Arguably, this was Bruegel’s moment. To look at, something of the 16th century settles on you, like dust. Like all great art this picture transports us to another world, but maybe to one that is not that far away.

Bruegel does not merely evoke a world of death, sadistic folly and barbaric logic, he renders it whole and alive, the bestial sadism of mankind a continuing story.

Where is the intersection of fear, denial, calculation, conscience and contempt? Has Bruegel found it? What was it like to watch your neighbours being marched off towards the railway station to board a non-stop train to extinction? How did your glass of schnapps taste that night? How effectively did it wash down the shame?

As Hannah Arendt observed: “Under conditions of terror, most people will comply but some people will not… Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.” Those who fight back redeem us all.

But in a world of sleaze, suspicion, desperation and murder, one where disobedience equalled death, would we have behaved any differently? We should ask ourselves: would I have discovered within myself the moral stature of decency, enough to defy the butchers, to protest the exodus; would I have fought back? I hope so – but in truth, I only hope so.

This painting makes me think of a lot of things, and first of those is my father’s father who fought in the trenches of Flanders.

Watching men stepping off the duckboards and drowning in mud, seeing one’s comrades blown to pieces, toasted with a flamethrower, crushed beneath the tracks of a tank changes one’s point of view about a lot of things.

In this hetacomb men vanished, in clouds of poison gas, hails of steel splinters and great lakes of sucking sod. Along the barbed wire they lay dead in lines like so much mown-down corn. After a while he had seen too much. You could not pretend that you did not see things. They were always there on the insides of your eyelids when you went to sleep at night. And you tell yourself that you would rather not see any more. Not if you can help it. Taking orders once made those men the victims of ‘historical value judgements’, and appear just as historic today as the notion of company loyalty. “This continual sight of agonizing humanity drifting aimlessly like frightened cattle becomes one of the worst of daylight nightmares.”

The nature of war changed. Slowly. Eras do eventually end. “The cut and thrust of oldstyle warfare, the beguiling panoply of flashing swords, the glittering lances, of flying pennants, the sound of drums and bugles, the hammer of hooves, the dash and glory of the charge – all these were not entirely dead, but they had begun their dying. So too had feudal concepts of service and duty, for so long bred to the bone… A grim awareness began to dawn that this war would be won by grit and not by glory.” It was 1914. How are the valiant fallen? “O death, where is thy victory?” When the poet Edward Thomas went off to fight in the First World War a friend asked him what he was fighting for. He picked up some soil, and said “this”.


  • Bruegel the Apocalypse Within:

Now we leave the sincere research of Stephen Graham Hitchins and look deeper in the intimate group of friends of Bruegel and the Family of Love . See The Spiritual Message of Bruegel for our Times.

  • ALASTAIR HAMILTON:  Having specialised in the study of the Radical Reformation and Western relations with the Arab world, he became the Dr C. Louise Thijssen-Schoute Professor of the History of Ideas at the University of Leiden in Holland in 1985, and in 1987 Professor of the History of the Radical Reformation (Anabaptistica) at the University of Amsterdam. He wrote 2 books about the Family of Love: The Family of Love I Hendrik Niclaes and The Family of Love. II: Hiël (Hendrik Jansen van Barrefelt). Addenda to The Family of Love. I.

In his study “THE APOCALYPSE WITHIN: SOME INWARD INTERPRETATIONS OF THE BOOK OF REVELATION FROM THE SIXTEENTH TO THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY”( Read Here), he gives us more information how the intimate group around Brueghel was thinking:

“In an introductory passage to his commentary on Revelation which appeared in 1627 the Flemish Jesuit Cornelius a Lapide mentioned the only inward interpretation he seems to have known of — that of the Spanish Biblical scholar Benito Arias Montano — and, although he acknowledged slight differences, he placed it in the medieval tradition of spiritual commentaries.

Certainly the patristic and medieval exegetes quoted by a Lapide,Ticonius, Primasius, Bede, Anselm, Hayrno, the Victorines, Rupert of Deutz and Denys the Carthusian — have something in commonwith the inward commentators. They either rejected a historical-political significance outright or added a spiritual interpretation to persons and places existing in history. For Primasius and Bede Asia in Revelation is thus equated with pride; BabyIon is commonly interpreted as the sum of all evil, the Beast as the devil and the Whore as the rejection of God.

At the same time, however, the Book was invariably regarded as prophesying the triumph of the Church’ of Christ. Chapters 4 and 5 were seen as a description of this Church, and the last chapters as an account of its victory. In the inward interpretations which I shall be discusring the Church of Christ disappears and is replaced by the human soul.

Benito Arias Montano was the first to admit that his interpretation of the Book of Revelation in his Elucidationes in omnia S. Apostolorum scripta of 1588, original though it might seem, was not of his own devising. He had taken it from the Dutch spiritual writer Hendrik Jansen van Barrefelt who wrote under ‘the pseudonym of Hiël, ‘the uniform life of God, and Hiël, in his turn, leads us to a particular attitude towards the Scriptures, which had developed in Northern Europe in reaction to Luther’s ideas.

This attitude, fostered by Thomas Miintzer and shared by Sebastian Franck, Sébastien Castellion, Valentin Weigel and others, was based on the belief that the Spirit was of far greater importance than the Letter and that the Scriptures could only be understood by the man enlightened by that same Spirit with which they had been written. To this must be added a further conviction, held by such men as David Joris and Hendrik Niclaes: the world had entered the last of the three altes of time, the age of the Spirit corresponding to the theological virtue of Charity, in which the seventh seal on the Scriptures would be removed for the spiritual man .

Hiël, a native of Gelderland, had been a weaver, and he prided himself on his ignorance of any language except Dutch’ . He had once been an Anabap­tist and had then joined the Family of Love shortly after its foundation by Hendrik Niclaes in Emden in 1540.

Note: The Family of Love, whose ideas  are central to Bruegel‟s intellectual and religious outlook, was not an isolated phenomenon and can be shown to be a link in the chain of schools – more or less hidden – stretching alongside the more visible history of Christianity in Europe . Read more about the movement at The Spiritual Message of Bruegel for our Times and PETER BRUEGEL THE ELDER AND TRADITION

Despite his professed ignorance of languages and an apparent lack of education Hiël was profoundly imbued with the spiritual ideas circulating in the Low Countries and Germany, and above alI he venerated the medieval tract which all the spiritual writers in Northern Europe claimed as one of their main sources, the Theologia Germanica.

In 1573 Hiël, who by this time resided chiefly in Cologne, broke away from Hendrik Niclaes and, in the years following, he devoted himself to writing his own books. These included his commentary on the Book of Revelation, the Verklaring der Openbaringe Johannis In het. ware Wesen Jesu Christi.

Refusing to commit himsejf to any visible church but displaying a certain preference for Catholicism rather than for Protestantism, Hiël carried to its extreme conclusion the attitude of the ‘spirituals’ towards the Letter. Rather than attempting any philological interpretation of the Bible he used the Bible as a text illustrating his own doctrine. To it he applied a single scheme of interpretation: throughout the Scriptures, he maintained, there could be detected a figurative indication of the eternal struggle in the soul of man between the sinful earthly being or nature, dominated by earthly wisdom, and the divine nature of God.

Only by killing earthly wisdom and the lusts and properties in his soul would man enable Christ to be reborn within himself and be united with God, thereby restoring that `oneness’ referred to at the beginning of the Theologia Germanica: 

  • “Sin is selfishness:Godliness is unselfishness:A godly life is the steadfast working out of inward freeness from self:To become thus Godlike is the bringing back of man’s first nature”.
  • St. Paul saith, “When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.”Now mark what is “that which is perfect,” and “that which is in part.”“That which is perfect” is a Being, who hath comprehended and included all things in Himselfand His own Substance, and without whom, and beside whom, there is no true Substance, and inwhom all things have their Substance.
  • For He is the Substance of all things, and is in Himself  unchangeable and immoveable, and changeth and moveth all things else. But “that which is inpart,” or the Imperfect, is that which hath its source in, or springeth from the Perfect; just as abrightness or a visible appearance floweth out from the sun or a candle, and appeareth to be somewhat, this or that. And it is called a creature; and of all these “things which are in part,” none is the Perfect. So also the Perfect is none of the things which are in part. The things which are inpart can be apprehended, known, and expressed; but the Perfect cannot be apprehended, known,or expressed by any creature as creature. Therefore we do not give a name to the Perfect, for it isnone of these. The creature as creature cannot know nor apprehend it, name nor conceive it.

In his foreword to his commentary on Revelation Hiël says that the divine mysteries and prophecies which have so long remained sealed have at last been opened ‘in the heart of the obedient man” and he dismisses any literal or historical interpretation of this or any other Book as a delusion of sinful earthly wisdom.

John of Patmos becomes the grave of God, Patmos the death of sin, Asia a muddy place in the human heart or nature to which sins and earthly desires cleave, and the message to the seven churches, each of which is regarded as a particular point in the human heart, is interpreted as the revelation of the divine nature of Christ and the cleansing of sin in the heart of man.

To the visions of judgement on the enemies of God and the victory of the faithful which occupy the greater part of the Book Hiël applies his scheme with considerable ingenuity.


In Chapter 4 the throne on which Christ is seated is interpreted as divine repose and the four living creatures signify four kinds of knowledge in human nature: the knowledge of prophecy under the Law, the knowledge of Sin, the knowledge of mercy and the knowledge of obedience to God.

Taken together they represent fallen humanity or earthly  nature, restless because of its earthly senses and lusts, and in perpetual search of repose in the divine being.

The seven seals are the laws of the hidden nature of God which can only be satisfied by the humble obedience of Christ (the Lamb). The opening of the seventh seal (Chapter 8) is the removal of the law of sin and death by the goodness of God. The opening is followed by knowledge of the uniform life in the divine being (the silene- rose in heaven). The seven angels which then appear represent ,the strength of God distributing punishment and death among the earthly lusts.

The two witnesses (Chapter 11) are the Law and the Prophets who will prophesy until man recognises the heavenly nature in his soul and sin is overcome by the death of Christ.

They will be trilled for a while by the beast, envious evil in the heart of unregenerate man, but will subsequefitly be revived and called up to heaven.

Finally, when the heart of man (God’s temple) is opened in heaven and the hidden bond of God (the ark) is seen and felt in the soul the earthly nature will tremble as if stricken by an earthquake and a tempest will destroy all earthly senses, lusts and thoughts.

The woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet in Chapter 12 is the love of God, the `great red dragon’ the poison of earthly wisdom dressed in deceitful earthly holiness.

For a time the love of God lies hidden in the depraved heart of man (the woman in the wilderness), but it is lighted by the hope of faith (the one thousand two hundred and sixty days) until it reaches the heavenly sun of God’s righteousness.


In the meantime a battle takes place in the depraved human heart (the war in heaven between Michael and the dragon):

God’s righteousness (Michael) slays earthly wisdom (the dragon and his angels). Earthly wisdom can thus no longer appear to be heavenly but must fall to earth and suffer death.

On earth it combats the simple love of God or the woman with the venom of the earthly senses (the serpent), but nature’s love (the earth) comes to her assistante.

In Chapter 13 the beast from the sea is depraved evil come to kill all virtues in the human heart. It derives its strength from the dragon, the poison of earthly wisdom, while the beast with two horns like a lamb and speaking like a dragon is hypocritical earthly holiness in the flesh which prevents the simple soul from’praying to God (the mark on the right hand or the forehead). The number of the beast is the whole of humanity.

Babylón is interpreted as the confusion of earthly senses; the Whore is false earthly wisdom, her golden jewels hypocritical holiness and the cup fuIl of abominations the carnal appetites.



The beast with seven heads is the evil caused by earthly wisdom and its rule on earth; its seven heads are the doctrines of earthly wisdom and the seven kings are personal vindictiveness under the guise of holiness.

  • The Punishment of Babylon and the Destruction of Pagan Nations

revelation Chapter 17

Babylon the Great.[a]Then one of the seven angels who were holding the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come here. I will show you the judgment on the great harlot[b] who lives near the many waters. [c]The kings of the earth have had intercourse with her, and the inhabitants of the earth became drunk on the wine of her harlotry.” Then he carried me away in spirit to a deserted place where I saw a woman seated on a scarlet beast[d] that was covered with blasphemous names, with seven heads and ten horns. The woman was wearing purple and scarlet and adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She held in her hand a gold cup that was filled with the abominable and sordid deeds of her harlotry. On her forehead was written a name, which is a mystery, “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth.” [e]I saw that the woman was drunk on the blood of the holy ones and on the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.

Meaning of the Beast and Harlot.[f] When I saw her I was greatly amazed. The angel said to me, “Why are you amazed? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, the beast with the seven heads and the ten horns. [g]The beast that you saw existed once but now exists no longer. It will come up from the abyss and is headed for destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world shall be amazed when they see the beast, because it existed once but exists no longer, and yet it will come again. Here is a clue[h] for one who has wisdom. The seven heads represent seven hills upon which the woman sits. They also represent seven kings: 10 five have already fallen, one still lives, and the last has not yet come,[i] and when he comes he must remain only a short while. 11 The beast[j] that existed once but exists no longer is an eighth king, but really belongs to the seven and is headed for destruction. 12 The ten horns that you saw represent ten kings who have not yet been crowned;[k] they will receive royal authority along with the beast for one hour. 13 They are of one mind and will give their power and authority to the beast. 14 They will fight with the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and king of kings, and those with him are called, chosen, and faithful.”

15 Then he said to me, “The waters that you saw where the harlot lives represent large numbers of peoples, nations, and tongues. 16 The ten horns[l] that you saw and the beast will hate the harlot; they will leave her desolate and naked; they will eat her flesh and consume her with fire. 17 For God has put it into their minds to carry out his purpose and to make them come to an agreement to give their kingdom to the beast until the words of God are accomplished. 18 The woman whom you saw represents the great city that has sovereignty over the kings of the earth.”

The succession of the kings is taken to signify the disappearance and subsequent return of evil, as is the capture and the return of the dragon at the beginning of Chapter 20.

The fall of Babylon and the lamentations of the merchants in Chapter 18 are interpreted  as the downfall of earthly wisdom and desires and the realisation in the human soul that the sanctity of earthly wisdom can no longer be trusted.

  • Revelation Chapter 18

The Fall of Babylon.[m] 1 After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth became illumined by his splendor. [n]He cried out in a mighty voice:

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great.
    She has become a haunt for demons.
She is a cage for every unclean spirit,
    a cage for every unclean bird,
    [a cage for every unclean] and disgusting [beast].
For all the nations have drunk[o]
    the wine of her licentious passion.
The kings of the earth had intercourse with her,
    and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her drive for luxury.”

Then I heard another voice from heaven say:

“Depart from her,[p] my people,
    so as not to take part in her sins
    and receive a share in her plagues,
for her sins are piled up to the sky,
    and God remembers her crimes.
Pay her back as she has paid others.
    Pay her back double for her deeds.
    Into her cup pour double what she poured.
To the measure of her boasting and wantonness
    repay her in torment and grief;
for she said to herself,
    ‘I sit enthroned as queen;
    I am no widow,
    and I will never know grief.’
Therefore, her plagues will come in one day,
    pestilence, grief, and famine;
    she will be consumed by fire.
For mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”

The kings of the earth who had intercourse with her in their wantonness will weep and mourn over her when they see the smoke of her pyre. 10 They will keep their distance for fear of the torment inflicted on her, and they will say:

“Alas, alas, great city,
    Babylon, mighty city.
    In one hour your judgment has come.”

11 The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn for her, because there will be no more markets[q] for their cargo: 12 their cargo of gold, silver, precious stones, and pearls; fine linen, purple silk, and scarlet cloth; fragrant wood of every kind, all articles of ivory and all articles of the most expensive wood, bronze, iron, and marble; 13 cinnamon, spice,[r] incense, myrrh, and frankincense; wine, olive oil, fine flour, and wheat; cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human beings.

14 “The fruit you craved
    has left you.
All your luxury and splendor are gone,
    never again will one find them.”

15 The merchants who deal in these goods, who grew rich from her, will keep their distance for fear of the torment inflicted on her. Weeping and mourning, 16 they cry out:

“Alas, alas, great city,
    wearing fine linen, purple and scarlet,
    adorned [in] gold, precious stones, and pearls.
17 In one hour this great wealth has been ruined.”

Every captain of a ship, every traveler at sea, sailors, and seafaring merchants stood at a distance 18 and cried out when they saw the smoke of her pyre, “What city could compare with the great city?” 19 They threw dust on their heads and cried out, weeping and mourning:

“Alas, alas, great city,
    in which all who had ships at sea
    grew rich from her wealth.
In one hour she has been ruined.
20 Rejoice over her, heaven,
    you holy ones, apostles, and prophets.
For God has judged your case against her.”

21 A mighty angel picked up a stone like a huge millstone and threw it into the sea and said:

“With such force will Babylon the great city be thrown down,
    and will never be found again.
22 No melodies of harpists and musicians,
    flutists and trumpeters,
    will ever be heard in you again.
No craftsmen in any trade
    will ever be found in you again.
No sound of the millstone
    will ever be heard in you again.
23 No light from a lamp
    will ever be seen in you again.
No voices of bride and groom
    will ever be heard in you again.
Because your merchants were the great ones of the world,
    all nations were led astray by your magic potion.
24 In her was found the blood of prophets and holy ones
    and all who have been slain on the earth.”

The marriage of the Lamb is the union of the human soul with the divine being; the ‘new heaven and new earth’ in the last two chapters are the new life in the divine being and the new life in the natural being following the ultimate defeat of evil.

As Hiël presents it the Book of Revelation is the description of a number of mystical progressions, some taking place concurrently, others successively, towards union with God.

There is no question of any reference to a church, visible or invisible. The temple is always interpreted as the human heart or soul, and the visions are of states within each one of us: to see them we must look within our soul.

The Book must be read with a spirit of love, Hiël adds in his epilogue, and with a readiness to yield to God. Only thus wilt its true contents be understood and appreciated.

  • Note: The pictures here presented are from  devotional images for meditations on Devotion of the Child Christ or Arma Christi (“Weapons of Christ”), or the Instruments of the Passion, are the objects associated with JesusPassion in Christian symbolism and art. They are seen as arms in the sense of heraldry, and also as the weapons Christ used to achieve his conquest over Satan. There is a group, at a maximum of about 20 items, which are frequently used in Christian art, especially in the Late Middle Ages. Typically they surround either a cross or a figure of Christ of the Man of Sorrows type, either placed around the composition, or held by angels. Or Christ as Child in the Heart of the true believer.

What does love look like?
It has the hands to help others.
It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy.
It has eyes to see misery and want.
It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men.
That is what love looks like.

Saint Augustine

In the 5 cirkels is written: “Gave van Barmhartigheid“: Gift of Mercy , “Gave van Genade’: Gift of Grace, “Gave des Levens” ( in the heart): Gift of Life, ” Gave van Medelijden”: Gift of Compassion, “Gave van sterkte“: Gift of strength.

  • Similarity between The Family of Love and Sufism

In our daily life we come up against situations that we cannot overcome in our own strength, or with our own wisdom. We need a strength and a wisdom that comes from Above, that comes from Beyond, that comes from Another outside of us and yet rises up from within us.“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?” This transformation – sometimes called rebirth – is maybe difficult to achieve and costs a man dearly because it takes place in opposition to everything he values in material life;but that is an illusory life which he mistakes for the other.The seeker of truth begins to see the contradiction between what he is at present and what he is called to become and, seeing this, he cannot avoid suffering. If he has the courage to continue and if, in spite of suffering and other difficulties, he remains on the true path, he will eventually come to what tradition refers to as ‘dying to oneself’ in Sufism, ‘die before you dieWe find the same principle in Islam and Sufism :  “la ilaha illallah ” : “there is no God but God” , it is part of theShahada.The Shahada has been traditionally recited in the Sufi ceremony of dhikr (Arabic: ذِکْر‎, “remembrance“), a ritual that resembles mantras found in many other religious traditions.

  • But we have forgotten the Traditional concept of who Man is:

Adam, Muḥammad, and the View of Man
The Islamic view of man may best be defined and exemplified in relation to these two poles, Adam and Muḥammad, the first prophet and the last, the beginning of the story and the end of it. To lay stress upon the “closing of the circle” represented by Muḥammad’s mission is to stress also the primordial nature of this mission. History had unfolded and humanity had pursued its predestined course.
There had to be—and there was—a return to the origin,insofar as such a return might be possible at so late a stage in the cycle. Islam justifies itself as the dīn al-fiṭrah, which
might be translated as “the religion of primordiality” or even as “the original religion.”The perfect Muslim is not a man of his time or indeed of any other specific historic time. He is man as he issued from the hand of God. “You are all the
children of Adam” (or “the tribe of Adam”) as Muḥammad told his people.
In relation to man as such, the word fiṭrah may be taken to refer to the human norm from which, according to the Quran, humanity has fallen away.But the word is derived from a verb meaning “he created” or “he cleft asunder” (the act of creation being described as a cleaving asunder of the heavens and the earth)—hence, its reference back to the origins. It follows that the image of human perfection (or, quite simply, of human normality) lies in the past, not in the future, and theway to its attainment lies not in an aspiration focused on a distant goal or in any miraculous redemption from inherent sinfulness but rather through the removal of accretions and distortions that have both corroded and twisted a perfection that is, in essence, natural to mankind.It is a question not of leaping over the world or of being rescued from it but of retracing, in an upward direction, the downward slope of time.
We have here a sharp contrast to the Christian view, which posits a primordial corruption of the innermost core of the human creature. But not with the view of Bruegel, the Family of Love and Hiel. Their message is : ” In our daily life we come up against situations that we cannot overcome in our own strength, or with our own wisdom. We need a strength and a wisdom that comes from Above, that comes from Beyond, that comes from Another outside of us and yet rises up from within us”.For Islam this core remains sound and cannot be otherwise. Neither time nor  circumstance can totally destroy what God has made, but time and circumstance can cover it with layer upon layer of darkness.This offers a clue to the deeper meaning of the term kāfir, usually translated as “infidel,” “unbeliever,” or “denier of the truth.” The word kafara means “he covered,” in the way that the farmer covers seed he has sown.In fallen man—man at the bottom of the slope—there has taken place a covering of the Divine “spark” within and, as a direct result of this, he himself covers (and so ignores or denies) the Truth,which has been revealed with dazzling clarity and which is, at the same time, inherent in the hidden “spark.”Islam envisages this man as imprisoned in a cell the walls of which he reinforces by his own misguided efforts, the cell of the ego, which sets itself up as a little god and isolates itself from the stream of Divine Mercy which flows at its doorstep.The guidance provided by the Messenger of God offers him the opportunity, if he will take
it, to come out into the open, the sunlight, which is his natural environment.The command inherent in this message is: Be what in truth you are! From this point of view it may be said—and has often been said although seldom with full understanding—that the Islamic concept of man is “static.” All is here and now, neither distant nor in another time. His way is upwards, vertically with “Uprightness”, not downwards or horizontally, predending we can overcome in our own strength, or with our own wisdom. Read more here

  • Memento Mori

By integrating and adapting preexisting themes from contemporary and classical culture, Bruegel created a neo-stoic critique of the tumultuous climate of Netherlands in a visual vernacular for the sixteenth century viewer. In his Triumph of Death, Bruegel employed antiquity’s stoic philosophy and classical satire… not only unmasking the folly of his time, but innovating the memento mori genre, and Netherlandish visual tradition. Read more here



  • -The Art of Dying Well according to Erasmus of Rotterdam and Teresa of Ávila

Contemporary conversations about death and dying are lost and unsatisfying on many levels. This phenomenon subsists not only in fields like bioethics, but also in religion and spirituality. Modern culture is preoccupied with seeking ways to live a longer, youthful life, ignoring the inevitable forthcoming of death.One period during which the topic of death and dying was reflected upon by the common Christian was between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries, during which a specific genre of literature was formed: ars moriendi.This genre attempted to provide intellectual, cultural and religious answers as to how death should be understood and ritualized. Two spiritual writers who contributed to the understanding of ars moriendi are Desiderius Erasmus and Teresa of Ávila. What unites these figures of the Catholic tradition is their attempt to show that preparation for death is a lifelong process of cultivating appropriate virtuesRead hereThe Art of Dying Well according to Erasmus of Rotterdam and Teresa of Avila

  • Dulle Griet is the model of Ira = Anger. How can she  find  a way to calm her anger?

She can looks in  the mirror and see herself, making more “selfies”, so  seeing more anger as the portait of vanity of Hans Memling shows us. The lady see only more vanity.  The message of Memling is in his Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation  focuses on the idea of “Memento mori,” a Latin phrase that translates to “Remember your mortality.” Memling’s triptych shockingly contrasts the beauty, luxury and vanity of the mortal earth with images of death and hell.

The scene of “Babylon, the Great Prostitute”: symbol of all abominations,  From the tapisseries of the Apocalypse of Angers;She is seen styling her long hair,which in the Middle Ages is a sign of prostitution . This prostitute has a pretty face and  she is looking in a mirror … but the mirror reflects another face, a great ugliness! This is the reality of the soul of this prostitute because the mirror is a symbol of truth and it is also the sign of the heart.She is represented sitting on a hill watered by four rivers: “These waters are peoples, crowds, nations, languages”.  She looks at herself in a mirror but the reflection that it sends back to her is that of a very ugly face (image of her soul).“On her forehead was written a name, a mystery: Babylon the great, the mother of immorality and abominations of the earth. And I saw this woman drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus … “”And the woman you saw is the great city that has kingship over the kings of the earth. »Having seen these details, we are now informed: She is the great prostitute of Babylon. Babylon means “the door of the Gods”. It is said in the Bible that Babylon was previously a golden cup in the hands of Yahweh but it fell and became the sign of pride. This woman here represents all the pride of the world, all the temptations that we are constantly confronted with in our daily lives and to which we often succumb. In the days of John, the seven hills watered by four rivers obviously refer to the city of Rome and the pride of this imperial Rome which imposes its yoke everywhere in the world.There is a sign of hope anyway in the tapestry with this angel with orange wings, the color of light and pointed towards the sky. He leads Jean by taking him by the hand … indicating that we are never alone. In the background, Hennequin of Bruges has also, once again, placed the bivium of Pythagoras, this sign which leaves us free to choose the path of good or the path of evil.

“The letter” y “represents the symbol of moral life. The question of good and evil arises before the free will of man: two roads open before him: the left, the thick branch of the “y”, is wide and easy to access, but leads to the chasm from shame, that of the right, the thin branch, is a steep and painful path, but at the summit of which one finds repose in honor and glory. “

Look also:

 A Disclosure of Wisdom

  • The woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet in Chapter 12 of Revelation:

This new vision also brings the image of a woman in the sky, a woman giving birth. Beyond all the plagues, this woman is an image of light: “wrapped in the sun, the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head”. The growing and decreasing moon is a symbol of transformation and it is precisely this transformation that is required of men.

In this picture, Hennequin from Bruges shows us both the birth and the ascension of Jesus. An angel comes to take the child from the hands of the woman to take him in the sky.

This woman is of course identified with the Virgin who gives Jesus to the world.

But evil, Satan, did not say his last word. At the feet of the woman, a dragon is about to devour his unborn child.

“He was a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns on his heads. His tail dragged a third of the stars from the sky and threw them on the ground ”

Seven is a power figure, also shown by the diadems: it is all the evil power of the dragon that is  represented here. It carries with its tail a part of the light and plunges us into the darkness.

As for the woman, she fled to the desert where a place prepared by God awaits her so that she may be nourished there for 1260 days.

Seeing himself thus overwhelmed and thrown on the ground, the dragon turns first against the woman on the run.

The dragon chases the child … but Michael, leader of the heavenly militia and his angels intervene and fight him. He is overwhelmed and precipitated on the earth.

The heavens and their inhabitants may rejoice, but the dragon, called the devil or Satan, will now be able to attack the inhabitants of the earth: “Woe to the land and the sea because the devil, knowing that he has only a short time, came down towards you, animated by great anger.

“Then the two wings of the great eagle are given to the woman to fly into the desert to her place of refuge” (The desert is the traditional refuge of the persecuted.)

Very beautiful image, an angel comes to lay wings in the back of the woman so that she can flee flying …

The temple of God opens in the sky, and “a grand sign” appears.

A woman is giving birth. “… the sun envelops her, the moon is under her feet and twelve stars crown hier head …”
Who is it who dawns like dawn, beautiful like the moon, shining like the sun“, sang the Beloved of the Song of Songs (6, 10).
This mysterious celestial mother is represented in a blue cloud descending to the earth. From his body emanate red rays, a sign of the sun which is his clothing. “Bless Yahweh, my soul. Yahweh, my God, you are so great. Dressed in pomp and radiance, draped in light like a cloak ... ”(Psalms, 104, 1-2.)
The light of the star is symbolic of the fire of the Spirit, of warmth and of life. In the Indian Veda tradition, the sun is the heart of the world. Under the feet of the Woman, the crescent of the moon announces a future growth. It is a sign of a transformation. The moon increases and decreases, it dies to grow again. The celestial body is the image of the buried, unconscious life, which must emerge brightly. The moon feeds on the sunlight it reflects, like divine clarity in it. In the tapestry, the twelve stars of the story adorn the golden crown.
This number is that of the completed world, of cosmic harmony. He is representative of the people of God, the tribes of Israel and the apostles. The star pierces of its light the darkness, like the spirit of the man, the matter.
Christian tradition has made the heavenly mother an image of Mary. She is the “living”, the new Eve. She gives Jesus to the world and gives birth to humanity. “Woman, this is your son. Said Christ on his cross (Gospel of John, 19, 26).

She gives birth in suffering, the image of the mind of the man who painfully transcends his material. The birth of the soul is a test.

The obstacle appears under the sign of a Dragon which threatens the Woman. He is the one who divides being, the Adversary. It drops the light by taking away a third of the stars from the sky. Its power is manifested by its seven heads and ten horns. The weavers of Angers did not represent the seven diadems which crown each head. They are signs of his power on the earth where he reigns. In the Apocalypse, the Dragon symbolizes the force of evil at work in the world. Fire red in color, the monster comes from hell. In Hebrew, the dragon, tannin, is related to tan, the jackal. “… you crushed us during the stay of jackals, covering us with the shadow of death” (Psalms, 44, 20).
In the Bible, the dragon is associated with sea monsters, the most formidable of which, Leviathan, is capable of destroying the world. Job paints a scary portrait:
Smoke comes out of his nostrils, like a cauldron boiling on the fire…
a flame comes out of his mouth…before leaps terror…. His heart is hard like rock, he is king onall the sons of  pride. »(Job, 41, 12-26.) 

Creature from the undifferentiated world of orgines , it symbolizes the disorder of chaos. In the Middle Age, the dragon is inner obstacle that man must fight against to reach the sacred.

In this struggle the Beast is the sign of a driving force that only the mastery of the spirit can overcome. The dragon is also the guardian of hidden treasures. Among the Greeks, he kept the golden fleece or the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides.
Man must face the beast, his animal part, to access the gold of his heart.

In the account of the apocalypse the Dragon seeks to devour the Messiah Child who is going to be born. He’s against the birth of the Spirit.

 The tapissery represents  the Child, kidnapped by angels who are not mentioned by Saint John. They come from the altar, sacred place where God manifests Himself.

The vision shows at the same time the birth of Christ and his ascent into heaven. It is also the image of the future of Man.

The grandiose sign of spiritual birth the real being of man, by the test of combat, and by a time of desert, where the Woman flees.

“..Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right,

for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.”  Isaiah 7: 14-16.

  • The Choice: the bivium of Pythagoras, Y: this sign which leaves us free to choose the path of good or the path of evil.

Man as “Whore of Babylon”                                                        The  New Man

The Rescue

The Choice:

Landscape As an Image of the Pilgrimage of Life by Joachim Patinir:

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt:


Man as “Whore of Babylon”                                                                  The  New Man














  The Rescue: Pilgrimage

The Choice:

Man as “Whore of Babylon”                                                                  The  New Man

The Rescue: Pilgrimage

  • Breughel and the Dormition of Mary

The names of Galle, Bruegel, Coornhert, Montano and Ortelius all come together in the story of the engraving of The Death of the Virgin.The painting, a haunting work in grisaille that hangs today at Upton House near Banbury, had originally belonged to Ortelius. A large number of Bruegel’s drawings were done specifically for the popular market in engravings but his paintings were private commissions and were not produced as editions of prints. The print of The Death of the Virgin is an exception and, even so, there was never a popular edition. Some years after Bruegel’s death Ortelius engaged Galle to produce a very limited edition intended for members of the intimate circle that had constituted the Hiël  group.

  • Explaining the spiritual meaning of the Apocalypse Hiël says:

…Finally, when the heart of man (God’s temple) is opened in heaven and the hidden bond of God (the ark) is seen and felt in the soul the earthly nature will tremble as if stricken by an earthquake and a tempest will destroy all earthly senses, lusts and thoughts.The woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet in Chapter 12 is the love of God, the `great red dragon’ the poison of earthly wisdom dressed in deceitful earthly holiness.For a time the love of God lies hidden in the depraved heart of man (the woman in the wilderness), but it is lighted by the hope of faith (the one thousand two hundred and sixty days) until it reaches the heavenly sun of God’s righteousness.Here comes the important spiritual value of the Death of Mary: As the inscriptions in the lower margin of the print tells us:

  • “Virgin, when you sought the secure realms of your son, what great joys filled your breast! What would have been sweeter for you than to migrate from the prison of the earth to the lofty temples of the longed-for heavens! And when you left the sacred group [of followers of Christ] whose mentor you had been, what sadness sprang up in you. How sad as well as how joyful was that pious gathering of you and your son as they watched you go. What was a greater joy for them than for you to reign [in heaven], what greater sadness than to miss your appearances? This picture, created by a skillful hand, shows the happy bearing of sadness on the faces of the just”.
  • Read more: Bruegel- The Dormition of Mary


  • The Virgin Mary and the Lime Tree

The Virgin Mary is often represented asThe woman clothed with the sun, and with the moon under her feet in Chapter 12 of Revelation. As Bruegel and the Family of Love see it:  She is the love of God.
We find her often associated with the Lime tree.The lime tree was traditionally a sacred and magical tree. Lime trees were often found at three-way junctions. Mostly these places were old cult places that later became Christianized and in which a little chapel was hung.In other places one finds the lime as a court tree, the tree under which the  Vierschaar sat.

A Vierschaar is a historical term for a tribunal in the Netherlands. Before the separation of lawmaking, law enforcement, and justice duties, the government of every town was administered by a senate (called a Wethouderschap) formed of two, three, or sometimes four burgomasters, and a certain number of sheriffs (called Schepenen), so that the number of sitting judges was generally seven. The term Vierschaar means literally “foursquare”, so called from the four-square dimensions of the benches in use by the sitting judges. The four benches for the judges were placed in a square with the defendant in the middle. This area was roped off and the term vierschaar refers to the ropes.The Dutch expression “vierchaar spannen” refers to the tightening or raising of these ropes before the proceedings could begin. (Accompanied by the question whether the sun is high enough, ‘hoog genoeg op de dag‘, since the practice stems from the Middle Ages when these trials were held outdoors.) Most towns had the Vierschaar privilege to hear their own disputes, and the meeting room used for this was usually located in the town hall. Many historic town halls still have such a room, usually decorated with scenes from the Judgment of Solomon.Later it has been tranmsformed in great and impressive buildings as The Palace of the Dam in Amsterdam

The lime tree was the symbol of civil liberty and often we see lime trees as liberty trees in the village centers.We know from the annals that the dukes of Brabant took their oath under a lime tree. The lime leaf represents truth and sincerity and many countries have a linden tree or linden leaf in their shield.This is the case, for example, in the Czech Republic. In former Prussia, the lime blossom was the national flower. Linden was also known as a witch tree. In the popular belief, witches, nymphs and ghosts hid in the bark and in the armpits. It was considered dangerous to go past old lime trees during the night, because then one could be ridden by a witch.That is why they used to hang chapels and they became “chapel trees” that the evil powers no longer had any control over. In chapel trees, deceived girls came knocking nails while under the effigy of the Blessed Virgin pampering and blaming their ex-lovers. This form of fetishism is called “nailing”.




As the oak is the symbol of strength, courage and fame, the linden symbolizes desire, love and tenderness. It is therefore not difficult to understand that the linden tree is the Mary tree par excellence and so many statues of Mary and Mary shrines are situated in or in the vicinity of a linden tree.

It is not just that this chapel is called “Our Lady under the Linden”. The linden is a sacred tree associated with the goddess. In the Dutch language, linden is female. Strangely enough, this is also the only tree that is female with us. Anyway, in Norse mythology, the linden tree was dedicated to the goddess Freya (there is a reason that there is a linden tree on the Kattenberg in Heiloo) and among the Slavic peoples to the love goddess Krasogani. In legends and fairy tales, the lime tree is considered to be the home of the white or wise woman. Romantic poets felt that this tree once had a religious significance. Often a lime tree stood near a well in the middle of a village. It was once the center of folk festivals. Many madonna statues are made of the soft lime wood. Sometimes Mary figurines are attached to a lime tree. So the linden is connected to Mary, our Lady, with the Goddess.

This custom is still alive as we see in Uden ( the Netherlands)

  • “Onze Lieve Vrouw ter Linde” –Our Dear  Lady under  the Linden in Uden ( the Netherlands)

Our Lady of the Linden returns to its roots in Uden. Next month, a lime tree will be planted near the Crosier Chapel in Uden, depicting Mother Mary. Just like before”. May 2019

With the tree and the statue, the chapel community honors the basis of the Maria worship in Uden. This is exactly where the centuries-long worship of Mother Mary in Uden started. As early as the thirteenth century, a Virgin’s chapel stood here. Initially no more than a statue in or near a lime tree – hence the lime tree – but documents from 1358 show that there is already an Osse pastor who keeps this chapel.
The worship of Mary really takes off when the Kruisheren are driven from Den Bosch and in 1648 decide to build a monastery in Uden. Initially this is on the Veghelsedijk, the monastery where the Birgittinesses still live, later they move to what is now the Kruisheren chapel and the monastery.
Centuries ago people from all over the country go on a pilgrimage to Uden:People from all over the country, as far as Amsterdam, go on a pilgrimage to Uden. In its heyday, there are seventy processions per year, in 1786 30.000 pilgrims are given Holy Communion. The fact that at least nine miracles are attributed to OL Vrouw ter Linde will certainly have contributed to this. The annual holiday of OL Vrouw ter Linde is on October 23.The original statue of OL Vrouw ter Linde is housed at the Museum of Religious Art in Uden for security reasons. That is the famous wooden, gold-colored statue from circa 1520. The museum also shows all kinds of gifts that pilgrims have given to Mary over the centuries. The stone statue of OL Vrouw ter Linde, dating from 1400-1500, is located in the vault of the Heritage Center of Dutch Monastic Life in Sint Agatha.

With the tree and the statue, the chapel community honors the basis of the Maria worship in Uden. This is exactly where the centuries-long worship of Mother Mary in Uden started. As early as the thirteenth century, a Virgin’s chapel stood here.In the time of Bruegel the Lime tree was branding:In 2019 the Lime Tree and The Virgin Mary as Love of God come again to live!Prior to the blessing, there was a celebration of the Eucharist in the chapel that revolved around the great importance of Mary as a “humble but strong woman.” Everybody was happy with the return of the tree as it stood in front of the chapel for centuries and which resulted in well-attended pilgrimages to Uden.
The new tree is the great achievement of artist Ine van Grinsven. She also made replicas of the famous statue of the Virgin Mary. One was placed at the roots of the tree when it was planted in February. The other is attached to the trunk and, if it is good, will be absorbed by the trunk as ever, the original.
The tree of faith, a 50-year-old lime tree, is made up of three layers: the bottom layer symbolizes all people together, the second layer the group of leaders – from politicians and artists to priests – and in the top God the almighty.


Explaining the spiritual meaning of the Apocalypse Hiël from the Family of Loves says:“For a time the love of God lies hidden in the depraved heart of man (the woman in the wilderness), but it is lighted by the hope of faith (the one thousand two hundred and sixty days) until it reaches the heavenly sun of God’s righteousness.…..Finally, when the heart of man (God’s temple) is opened in heaven and the hidden bond of God (the ark) is seen and felt in the soul, the earthly nature will tremble as if stricken by an earthquake and a tempest will destroy all earthly senses, lusts and thoughts”.

  • Polishing the Mirror of the Heart

In Sufism, Ibn ʿArabī begins his Bezels of Wisdoms (Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam) by comparing Adam’s capacity for reflecting all of God’s attributes to a “polished mirror.” Before him, Ghazālī had famously used the image in the context of comprehending the Qurʾan: “The heart is like a mirror; desires are like rust; and the meanings of the Qurʾan are like forms that appear in that mirror, so that ascetic practice, by extirpating the lower desires, does for the heart what polishing does for a mirror.” The trope of the polished mirror elicits an image of ultimate human perfection as a matter of removing deficiencies—as opposed to acquiring the good.

    •  the Mirror

By Kabir Helminski

One of the earliest teachings on Sufism that I received more than thirty years ago was about “polishing the mirrror of the heart.” The understanding of this idea continues to unfold with new and deeper implications.

We continually polish the mirror of the heart in order that the heart might reflect the guidance, inspiration, and intelligence of the Divine.

Every reaction, aversion, judgment, desire, entanglement, and compulsion we feel inside ourselves can be transformed by conscious repentance, conscious gratitude, and conscious love. These can be expressed simply by the words: Forgive me. Thank You. I love You. The You, in this case, is the Divine.

Conscious repentance, conscious gratitude, and conscious love polish the heart until what reflects in the heart is the Divine intelligence.

The clear heart is the best guide to living. The state of positive emptiness, equanimity, and peace is a kind of “zero” state, an emptiness that is a plenum of abundance.

The heart which is the inner state of ourselves is also a hologram of all. Therefore, whatever thought or judgment, blessing or curse, good or bad we hold in our hearts has an effect, both on us and on the other, whatever the “other” may be, animate or “inanimate.”

Everything that we experience as a problem is within ourselves. Consequently the solution to the problem is also within ourselves. We can heal. We can forgive. We can bless. We can create abundance. All of this is possible through the positive action of polishing, purifying, clearing, cleaning what is within us.

Egoism contaminates all aspects of human life and must be cleared. Thought forms, negative attitudes, self-destructive attitudes are collective phenomena that people pick up like a flu or fungus.

Forgive me. Thank You. I love You. These have the power to neutralize and erase those psychic toxins.

Spiritual tradition counsels that spiritual masters purify the souls of their students. Actually, it is the constant inner spiritual work of the more mature human being that not only continues the purification process for the master, but also has its effect on the student. The detoxification in one appears in the other as a result. Therefore the whole world is responsible for the whole world. Everyone is potentially responsible for everyone.

The ultimate happiness of everyone is to love and be loved. Therefore there is no greater and more effective work than loving, living without judgment, blessing AND TRANSFORMING every negative thing that comes into our consciousness.

No negative thought within ourselves is completely contained within ourselves, nor is a positive thought limited within ourselves. We can heal other souls, transform relationships, bring order and harmony into the world by the continual consciousness of, acceptance of, and gratitude for what is .

As we come to understand how much the Divine Beneficence supports us, blesses us, guides us, we can surrender into what is without fear, judgment, or resistance. We fall in love with it. We trust it as the essential source of action.

By continually polishing we transform our own inner world and everything around us.

Read more here: Polishing your heart


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