“Feast your eyes, Feast your mind”: Bruegel’s later Peasant Paintings
Take heart…do your best, that we may reach our target: that they (Italians) may no longer say in their speech that Flemish painters can make no figures. -Karel van Mander, Den Grondt der Edel Vry Schilder-const215
[I]n this mortal life, wandering from God, if we wish to return to our native country where we can be blessed we should use this world and not enjoy it, so that the “invisible things” of God “being understood by the things that are made” may be seen, that is, that by means of corporal and temporal things we may comprehend the eternal and spiritual.
-St. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana
In the following, I examine three paintings by Bruegel made in the last years of his life,1568-1569, all of which are now in Vienna: Peasant Wedding Banquet, Peasant Dance, and Peasant and Nest Robber. Comparable to the way in which members of the Pléiade program or rederijkers, such as Jan van der Noot and Lucas de Heere, advocated the cultivation of the vernacular language by incorporating the style and form of Latin, French or Italian literature, as well as translating texts from classical Antiquity, I show how Bruegel’s monumental paintings of peasants reveal a similar agenda for what I have termed a “visual vernacular.” Rather than this mode of painting being dependent on the resolute imitation of nature, rejecting any idealization of figures, I will show how Bruegel advocates for the incorporation of classicist, Italianate visual concepts and pictorial elements into detailed images of local custom. In this way, Bruegel mediates characteristics of ambitious historiae for peasant paintings, an idiom increasingly recognized as Northern, and asserts his style to be just as capable of copious, apt and cultivated expression. Furthermore, I intend to show how the recognition of this artistic mediation—in which the viewer is often forced to negotiate between sacred and profane, antique and modern, Northern and Italian 215 Karel van Mander, The Foundation of Noble Free Art of Painting, unpublished translation, Elizabeth Honig (ed.), trans. by J. Bloom, et al., 13.
artistic practices—challenges the interpretive capabilities of the viewer and creates thematic associations between referee and referent that would have inspired the kind of lively conversation that fit well within the analytical model of viewing and discussing art and literature illustrated in the dialogues representing the convivium tradition. These paintings, which probably hung originally in dining rooms, studies or social rooms, functioned as “conversation pieces,” eliciting questions and conversations on a number of different topics regarding both the form and content of the pictures. In so doing, Bruegel’s practice of mediation functions not only to further cultivate his artistic style, but also to cultivate the mind of the viewer. As with Aertsen’s Pancake Eaters discussed in the Introduction, Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Banquet (fig. 8) is both a detailed depiction of a Brabant village feast yet is portrayed in such a way that it differs from previous practices of representing peasants.216 A rustic barn filled with hay from the recent harvest serves as the banquet hall. Multiple figures dressed in traditional peasant attire sit on benches lining a long, diagonally composed table.217 On the right, bowls of what may be rijstpap, or pudding, are served from a door taken off its hinges while, on the left, a man is busy pouring beer.218 The thoughtful bride is in the center, denoted by a green cloth of honor hanging from a rope attached to a pitchfork stuck in the hay. To the right, crossed sheaves hang from a rake also stuck in the wall of hay. Traditionally, the sheaves would have been the last to be cut from the harvest and were displayed not only in honor of the bounty, with hopes for the same result the following season, but also to symbolize the desire for an equally fertile bride.219 In the left background, a cluster of peasant figures block any visual exit, crowding into the room in hopes of tasting the banquet victuals. This cluster of heads is compositionally echoed in the left foreground by the multiple empty, round beer mugs piled on top of one another in a basket located next to the beer pourer.
216 For analyses of this painting, see Gibson, Pieter Bruegel (1991), Sullivan, Bruegel’s Peasants (1994), and Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 149-183. 217 On sixteenth-century costume, see Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 162-182. 218 Jan Grauls, Volkstaal en volksleven in het werk van Pieter Bruegel, Antwerp: Standaard-boekhandel (1957), 209-210. 219 On the symbolism of the ritual of the “last sheaves,” see Albert Eskeröd, Arets Fester, Stockholm: L.T.S. Förlag (1965), 361-364; J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: Part V—Spirits of the Corn
The peasant figures themselves are coarse and display manners appropriate to their social status.220 To the left of the most prominently and centrally located server, who is dressed in blue with a red hat, a seated man is depicted leaning back, beer jug in hand, looking upwards in the direction of the crossed sheaves. His mouth is open with his teeth revealed, an unrefined characteristic unthinkable in depictions of middle and upper class society.221 His gaze is wide-eyed, yet seems to be directed at nothing in particular. Beyond him, on the opposite side of the table, five figures, two women and three men, sit beside one another. However, none of them interact with anyone, at least no one that we can see. A woman extends her hand to accept a jug of beer from her companion, but her friend’s face is completely obstructed from view by the serving attendant. To the left of this, a peasant man holds a plate so as to reveal its emptiness while he spoons the last bits of its contents into his mouth. His wide-eyed stare is as empty as that of the man across the table toward whom his gaze is directed. Continuing to the left, we see a figure who has completely turned toward his friend, presumably to engage in conversation, but he receives no reciprocal interaction. Similar to the second figure described, the fourth character holds a bowl with her left hand and spoons its contents with her right. Her gaze is directed downward toward the table. The fifth person is hardly discernable, partially covered by the upturned beer jug raised to his mouth and partially by the bagpiper in front of the table. The disconnection between these individuals becomes even more marked when compared to the monk and urbanite on the right side of the painting. The monk’s gesture of speech and the man’s thoughtful expression and folded hands communicate that the two are deep in discussion. Whereas the primary concern of the peasant figures is the food and drink before them, at the expense of social interaction, the “outsiders”—lord of the manor and religious representative—are portrayed in such a way that it is clear that they are more interested in cultivating their minds than indulging in the pleasures of the feast. Considering the fact that Bruegel’s wealthy, middle-class viewers were most likely themselves partaking of a feast, this contrast between cultivated and uncultivated social manners would have certainly inspired discussion on the subject in front of the 220 On the peasants’ coarse facial features, see Sullivan, Bruegel’s Peasants (1994), 77-90. 221 Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 161.
painting. In fact, as we have seen in the convivium literature, and as is illustrated by the monk and gentleman, good conversation often replaces food as the “main course” of the meal. In the “Godly Feast,” Timothy starts off by saying, “We’ll eat with pleasure but listen with even more pleasure.”222 In descriptions filling the correspondence of Erasmus and his companions, exchanges taking place over meals seem to be as sustaining as the meal itself, and food is constantly employed as a metaphor for intellectual sustenance.223 “Your book, you see, is meat and drink to me,” wrote Johann Reuchlin to Erasmus.224 Referring to the Praise of Folly, Paul Volz recounts that he and some friends “have been reading this…at dinner, and we have been filled with laughter and admiration; indeed it has almost taken the place of meat and drink.”225 In a letter to Guillaume Budé, Erasmus recounts that he and Cuthbert Tunstall “often relax over one of your letters by way of dessert.”226 Such a practice for mealtime had become a part of everyday life. Humanists argued that dialogue takes the pleasure of dining out of the realm of pure sensation and allows reason to play a role.227 The string of disconnected peasants culminates in the bagpiper. Clothed in white stockings, white pants, white undershirt and red jacket, the musician stands just left of center with a bagpipe between his arms and his fingers placed over the holes of the chanter. He has a bemused facial expression with dazed eyes and an empty glare. His glare attracts attention to his appearance, over his musical task, and encourages the viewer to look away to find the object of his gaze. Most art historians agree that it is the food being distributed that seduces his interest.228 As Kavaler explains, “The delinquent village musician is a pointer that asserts the relevance of the food for the half of the picture where it is less [visually] apparent, a relationship strengthened through correspondences in color. He is a sign of elemental desire, of essential and recognizable humanity that is deliberately associated with the wish to join in the
222 Thompson, The Colloquies of Erasmus (1965), 183. 223 Goldstein, “Keeping Up Appearances” (2003), 28. 224 Desiderius Erasmus, The Correspondence of Erasmus, Wallace K. Ferguson (ed.), trans. by R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson, Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1975), vol. 3, 300. 225 Ibid., 189. 226 Ibid., vol. 4, 103. 227 Jeanneret, A Feast of Words (1991), 172-191. 228 Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1991), 158.
communal meal.”229 A similar motif can be found in Pieter Aertsen’s depiction of the Egg Dance (1557, fig. 30). While a man performs the folk dance, the bagpiper in the background has ceased playing music and gestures longingly toward a beer mug held high by the man in the left foreground. In Bruegel’s painting, this figure echoes the behavior of the peasants seated at the table; as they are more concerned with nourishing their bodies with the food and drink before them—rather than cultivating their minds with the primary activity at mealtime, conversation—he too has abandoned his principal task, playing music, because of his preoccupation with the banquet feast. On one level, these representations of local peasant custom, viewed in the home of a wealthy businessman, could have inspired discussion about certain social differences, especially priorities regarding mealtime activities. It should be noted that we know through infrared photography that the bagpiper is depicted, in the original version of the painting, with a large codpiece (fig. 31). It is probable that it was subsequently painted out sometime after 1622, which we can speculate because it was in this year that Pieter Bruegel the Younger copied his father’s painting and the codpiece is present.230 The codpiece becomes a popular element of male attire among all classes around 1450—from peasants and soldiers to kings and emperors—and famous contemporary writers, such Montaigne and Rabelais, often ridiculed it as a wardrobe decoration.231 Whether or not such a common characteristic of male costume would have indicated, as many modern scholars have argued, that Bruegel’s peasants were meant as embodiments of lust and other vices, remains ambiguous at best. An additional painted-out motif raises more profound issues of modification. The angle of the bagpiper’s drone, as well as that of his accompanying musician, is compositionally continued by the ladder leaning on the other side of the hay in the background. This construction would have guided the viewer’s gaze upward to what was, either in an unfinished or original version of the painting, a peasant couple making out in the hay (fig. 32). Again, through infrared photography the presence of 229 Ibid. 230 On Pieter Breugel the Younger‘s practice of copying his father’s works, see the exhibition catalogue Brueghel – Brueghel: Een Vlaamse schildersfamilie rond 1600, Antwerpen: Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, 1998. 231 Gibson, Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Laughter, Berkeley: University of California Press (2006), 99100. See also Alpers, “Bruegel’s Festive Peasants (1972-3), 167.
the kissing couple is clear. However, it is likely that this scene of sexual desire was painted over either by Bruegel himself or by someone else soon after it was finished. It is not present in his son’s copy of the painting just fifty years later and a preliminary paint analysis under magnification indicates that the paint used is consistent with the rest of the painting in this area.232 This is a strong indication that the most extreme, overt illustration of the lack of self-control in the picture was removed, whether by Bruegel or at the patron’s request, while more subtle illustrations of unrefined peasant behavior are kept. Because the drones and ladder compositionally lead the viewer to this space, yet what is supposed to be seen is removed, we know that the change has nothing to do with fine-tuning so that the painting works better artistically. Rather, the couple is removed because of their behavior. This change is an indication of an interest, whether on the part of the artist’s or the patron’s, in moderating the behavior of the scene, to present a more balanced or subtle representation of peasants in their natural environment. What unrefined behavior remains in the picture has more to do with the pleasure of the meal, lightheartedness as Erasmus would say, rather than any moral or negative connotations that the kissing couple in the hay would have inspired. This lightheartedness, combined with the seriousness represented by the monk and urbanite, visually illustrates Erasmus’s instructions for balance, or variety, regarding topics of conversation during dinner parties, from comedy to topics of more sober concern.233 In the following, I will show how this behavioral moderation is combined with artistic innovation in order to create balance, not only in regard to peasant custom but also in terms of the painting itself. If compared to previous practices of depicting peasant festivities, the complexity, order and detail of Bruegel’s painting distinguishes itself from the rest. The chaotic scene which previously had appeared in German prints and the Verbeeck family water-color paintings as an animated brawl or bacchanal of foolery, such as the Burlesque Feast (1550, fig. 33) of Jan Mandijn (1500-1560), is in Bruegel’s image composed in a more orderly fashion. Not only is the strong diagonal composition of a table employed to create depth within a closed scene, an addendum to the table is
232 Information provided by Dr. Elke Oberthaler, Chief Restorer at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. 233 L. Ryan, “Erasmi Convivia: The Banquet Colloquies of Erasmus” (1980), 305.
provided in the form of the makeshift serving tray bearing multiple bowls of food which has a similar diagonal composition and is situated as a mediation point between the viewer and the feasting guests. As Kavaler explains, the appeal to the viewer’s senses in this way has a long tradition in Netherlandish painting. In the later fifteenth and early sixteenth century, the portrayal of fruit or flowers in devotional images was commonly used to prick senses other than sight, such as smell and taste, to enhance the viewing experience, as well as to engender a pious attitude through religious metaphors of consumption, as illustrated in the Song of Songs.234 If the intellectually engaged monk and lord emphasize the role of conversation during mealtime and the peasants highlight a desire for pleasure, then this prominent display of food that introduces the viewer to the banquet pricks the most prominent sense for a meal, taste. In his representation of a Peasant Feast (1550, fig. 34), Aertsen also foregrounds the table on which the food is displayed. In order to intensify the visual invitation to participate in the meal, the artist tilts the tabletop forward so that the victuals are more prominently displayed (and viewed). In fact, on the foremost edge of the table, a large loaf of bread is situated so that its shadow extends into the space of the viewer. Furthermore, the bottom portion of the table is cut off by the frame of the painting so that the viewer feels as if he is actually himself sitting at the table and witnessing firsthand the activities of a peasant feast; thus, the picture implicates both the viewer’s sense of space and taste. In Bruegel’s painting, the visual invitation to “take a seat” is extended by the strong diagonal movement of the door which leads to the right corner of the painting, where an empty chair is depicted along with two equally empty plates. One plate rests on top of the chair and another larger plate leans against the chair’s leg, as if to provide space for the viewer to sit, have some food and contemplate the scene. This motif functions to more intensely emphasize for the viewer the act of observation and that it should not be considered a cursory or impersonal affair. The detail advocating the viewer’s participation in the meal might also serve as evidence for the veracity of a well-known anecdote about Bruegel written by Karel van Mander in his Schilderboeck:
234 See Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1991), 152; Reindert Falkenburg, The Fruit of Devotion: Mysticism and the Imagery of Love in Flemish Paintings of the Virgin and Child, 1450-1550, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 1994.
“Bruegel often went outside among the peasants at their kermissen and weddings, dressed in peasant clothing, and gave gifts like the other guests, pretending to be of the bride’s or the groom’s family or people.”235 Though Bruegel uses this marginal motif in other paintings, it is no invention of his own. Artists such as Petrus Christus (1410-1473), among many others, paint a similar chair in the foreground scene of Death of the Virgin (fig. 35). Bruegel follows such a device in his own painting of the Virgin’s death, where an empty chair sits in the foreground with a book resting on top (fig. 36). This acts as a repoussoir device that leads the viewer into a painting where the depth is closed off. It also serves as somewhat of an obstruction that once acknowledged, must be assimilated before proceeding further. In the Peasant Wedding Banquet, after a brief moment’s delay at the repoussoir, the viewer is immediately directed by the arms of the central server toward the key figure of the representation and explores the rest of the painting thereafter. These pictorial invitations in the foreground for the beholder to enter the picture and leisurely view the activities are important observations in the context of a possible convivium environment, a setting in which viewers in a dining room are themselves lingering at table and participating in a feast, eager to find interesting topics of conversation.236 Because they themselves reproduce the fundamental activity of the painting—eating—the space and actions of the viewer are immediately implicated, inspiring conversation that is reflexive. Talk about the peasants feasting and the fictive space they occupy inevitably inspires talk about similar activities in the space in front of the painting and what the relationship between the two might be. In contrast to his earlier panoramic drawings of peasant festivities, such as his depictions of kermissen, the importance of monumental figures in the Peasant
235 “[Met desen Franckert] ging Brueghel dickwils buyten by den Boeren, ter kermis, en ter Bruyloft, vercleedt in Boeren cleeren, en gaven giften als ander, versierende van Bruydts oft Bruydgoms bestandt oft volck te wesen.” English translation by Mark Meadow, Netherlandish Proverbs (2002), 121. 236 An interesting literary comparison to this introductory visual invitation for participation is the way in which Rabelais employs the prologues in his Pantagruel and Gargantua as an opportunity for the narrator and the narratee to act out the ideal relationship between the author and reader. Michel Jeanneret explains that in each prologue an imaginary setting is provided for the production and reception of the text, a contract between the author and the reader is drawn up and the tone is set: the story can only begin after this preliminary program and this meeting of the partners in the exchange. In this very structure of narrative communication, the paradigm of the banquet enters the picture: as soon as he opens the book, the reader is invited to eat and drink. To enter the world of the fiction, the rite of passage is a simulation of conviviality; see Jeanneret, A Feast of Words (1991), 119.
Wedding Banquet is emphasized by their disposition across the picture plane and the space they occupy, which is closer to and level with that of the viewer. In addition, they are placed in meaningful relation to one another through gestures, movement and expressions, without ever losing sight of the composition as a whole, in order to structure the narrative portrayed—visual concepts that also defined a painted historia. In particular, the complex assembly of arms and overlapping legs that make up the bodies of the three servers surrounding the serving tray is somewhat reminiscent of the kind of figural constructions portrayed by Raphael (fig. 37, 38). The lateral movement indicated by the legs and feet of the man in red on the right juxtaposed with the man in light blue in the center, who stands flat-footed, immobile with his right leg extended, is a well thought-out arrangement comparable to Raphael’s Entombment.237 In this painting, dating from 1507 and now in the Borghese Gallery, Rome, two figures carrying Christ assume similar positions. Both men are leaning backwards under the strain of Christ’s lifeless body, the man on the left steps backwards towards Christ’s makeshift tomb, indicating motion, while his counterpart stands, much like Bruegel’s peasant in blue, flat-footed and immobile with his left leg extended. Created during the period when Raphael was vying with Michelangelo and Leonardo for commissions in Florence, the Entombment serves as an example of the intellectual peak of Italian Renaissance painting—an image in which the nature of art is as much the subject as Christ’s entombment.238 In fact, Charles Rosenberg has argued that this picture is the
237 During his purported visit to Rome in 1553, scholars speculate that Bruegel was closely associated with Giulio Clovio at a time when the artist was in the service of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. If this is the case, since Clovio was an ardent admirer of Michelangelo and Raphael, whose works he frequently copied, it is fair to assume that Bruegel was introduced to the work of the leading artists of the humanist culture of the Italian Renaissance by an artist who understood and admired their artistic achievements. Although we can not know with any certitude that Bruegel specifically saw Raphael’s Entombment, we do know that he was aware of the artist’s working style in general. For a more detailed discussion of Bruegel’s possible collaborations with Giulio Clovio, see Charles de Tolnay, “Newly Discovered Miniatures by Pieter Bruegel the Elder,” Burlington Magazine, 107 (1965), 110-114. On Bruegel’s purported visit to Italy, see Nils Büttner, “Ein Beitrag zur Biographie Pieter Bruegels d.Ä. und zur Kulturgeschichte der niederländischen Italienreise,” Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft (2000), 209-242; Dominique Allart, “Sur la piste de Bruegel en Italie: les pieces de l’enquete,” Bollettino d’Arte, vol. 82, no. 100 (1997), 93-106. See also Würtenberger, “Zu Bruegels Kunstform” (1940), 3048, where he discusses Bruegel’s limited use of Renaissance forms, which, for him, means a pictorial composition that is structured by the figure. 238 As Vasari asserts in his Lives, “In the art of composition, no matter what the subject, Raphael surpassed everyone else in facility, skill and ability.” Later, after stating that Raphael could not equal Leonardo’s sublimity and grandeur nor Michelangelo’s portrayal of the naked figure, he states that, nevertheless, “Among the finest painters could also be included those who knew how to express with
quintessential Albertian composition, following precisely the standards of representation as prescribed in Alberti’s treatise On Painting.239 Raphael’s artistic designs, especially his compositions of monumental figures, would have been available to Bruegel in Brussels through a number of different venues. For example, Bernardo Daddi’s (1512-ca. 1570) engraving of Psyche Taken to a Deserted Mountain (Fig. 39), now in San Francisco, reproduces a design that has been attributed to both Michael Coxie and Raphael. The uncertainty among art historians regarding attribution only proves the point that there were some Northern artists during this period who followed Raphael’s artistic practice so closely that it is sometimes impossible to distinguish a design of the Italian artist from one of his followers.240 In addition to reproductive prints and drawings, Raphael’s cartoons were often specifically requested for tapestry production.241 A set of ten tapestries traditionally known as the Acts of the Apostles (1516–21) was commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 and woven in Brussels from cartoons designed and painted by Raphael. Raphael devised the scheme as a vast woven fresco incorporating life-size figures acting in fully realized illusionistic settings (fig. 40, 41).242 During the following decade, other
skill, facility and judgment their various scenes, inventions, and ideas, and who in composing their pictures knew how to avoid crowding them with too much detail or impoverishing them by putting in too little, and produced works of fine stylistic purity and order.” Vasari, Lives of the Artists, vol. 1, New York: Penguin Press (1987), 300, 317. 239 Charles Rosenberg, “Raphael and the Florenting Istoria” (1986). See also Nigel Spivey, “Pathos by Formula: The Story of Raphael’s Entombment,” Apollo, vol 150, no. 449 (July 1999), 46-51. 240 As early as 1521, Northern artists such as Jan Gossaert and Bernard van Orley base some of their compositions of paintings on designs by Raphael. Sources include Raphael’s tapestry cartoons and reproductive prints by Marcantonio Raimondi, Marco Dente, Giorgio Ghisi and others. See Liedekerke, Anne-Claire de, ed. Fiamminghi a Roma, 1508–1608: Artistes des Pays–Bas et de la principaute de Liége á Rome á la Renaissance. Exhibition catalogue. Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995; Ariane Mensger, Jan Gossaert: Die niederländische Kunst zu Beginn der Neuzeit, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2002. On the reproduction and distribution of Raphael’s work, both in Italy and the North, see Corina Höper (ed.), Raffael und die Folgen: Das Kunstwerk in Zeitaltern seiner graphischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2001. 241 During the last quarter of the fifteenth century, high-quality Netherlandish production was increasingly dominated by the workshops in Brussels. This was the result of three factors: the decline of the industry in Arras and Tournai; the emergence of Brussels as the principal seat of the Burgundian court in the Netherlands, which ensured its importance as a center of artistic and commercial activity; and the monopoly that the Brussels artist’s Guild of Saint Luke secured in 1476 over the fabrication of figurative tapestry cartoons. The importance of Brussels for artistic activity extended into the second half of the sixteenth century. Thomas P. Campbell, “European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1400–1600,” Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002. See also, Guy Delmarcel, Flemish Tapestry: From the 15th to the 18th Century, Trans. by Alastair Weir, Tielt, Belgium: Lannoo, 1999. 242 T. Campbell, “European Tapestry Production” (2002). For a detailed discussion of these tapestries and their design, see John White, Studies in Renaissance Art, London: Pindar Press (1983), 213-311.
tapestry designs by Raphael’s associates were also produced in Brussels. As Thomas Campbell explains, not only did these Raphael school designs fundamentally alter the subsequent development of Netherlandish tapestry design, they also highly influenced Northern artists.243 In addition, the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto, Bronzino, among others, was also popularized in the North through prints by Marcantonio Riamondi, Marco Dente de Ravenna (1493-1527), Agostino Veneziano (1490-1540) and Giorgio Ghisi (1520-1582). Filip Vermeylen has published documents regarding the collection of the Antwerp art dealer Jan van Kessel (16261679) upon his death. Among his enormous collection were three prints “by Raphael depicting martyrdom” and nineteen other prints “by Raphael, Parmigianino, and others.”244 While the composition and distribution of monumental figures supporting and surrounding the goddess in Psyche Taken to a Deserted Mountain is similar to Raphael’s Entombment, it resonates even more with Bruegel’s painting—to the degree that a visual comparison between their structural designs can highlight the artistically ambitious mode of art Bruegel employs for a peasant scene. The skill of the engraving’s designer in putting together numerous bodies, while maintaining a cohesive order, is demonstrated with multiple Y-formations which create an illusion of recession, leading the gaze into depth (fig. 42). The clearest construction is made up by the man on the right, who leans forward to bear the weight of Psyche, and the figure of Psyche herself, who bows her head in mourning. The space left between these two figures leads the viewer’s gaze into depth toward the landscape in the distance. In Bruegel’s painting, similar Y-formations are immediately apparent (fig. 43). In particular, the server in red on the right side of the painting who leans forward to lower the heavy wooden door, and, just to his left, the central server who straddles the 243 Ibid. See also James Bloom, “Why Painting?” in Neil De Marchi and Hans van Miegroet (eds.), Mapping Markets for Paintings in Early Modern Europe, 1450-1750, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2004), 17-33, where he suggests that production and marketing strategies of tapestry dealers in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries were subsequently adapted by painters to meet the increasing demand for their work in the sixteenth century. Bloom also argues that the diverse subject matter of tapestry in the fifteenth century—classical and contemporary histories, landscapes, genre scenes, peasant revels, and chivalric representations of the nobility at their leisure—influenced, via linen painting, the proliferation of style and genre that characterizes sixteenth-century art in Antwerp. 244 Filip Vermeylen, “The Commercialization of Art: Painting and Sculpture in Sixteenth-Century Antwerp,” in Maryan Ainsworth (ed.), Early Netherlandish Painting at the Crossroads, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art (2001), 50.
bench. This figure faces the opposite direction and carefully bends down to grasp another bowl from the tray. The space between these two reveals an older gentleman across the table, possibly the bride’s father, who raises his hand indicating speech. Both artist’s complex overlapping of figural groups leads the viewer’s eye into depth toward an old man or a solitary tree in the landscape, elements that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Moving now to the action below Bruegel’s serving table, commentators have long observed that it takes visual exercise and mental effort to reconnect the multiple feet to the appropriate body.245 In fact, it seems, at first glance, as if an “extra foot” is present under the makeshift serving tray bearing the bowls of food. The left leg of the server in red on the right is extended backward, with his foot arched and heel off the ground, in the process of stepping forward. In the place where his next step would fall appears what seems to be an extra foot, apparently connected to nothing. But, after a second look the viewer is able to reconnect the foot to a body, the left leg of the server in the middle who straddles the bench while passing out bowls of food. Because this server’s second foot is almost invisible on the opposite side of the serving table, as well as the contorted nature of his body, it requires effort to reconstruct his lower half; i.e. an imaginary re-enactment on the part of the viewer to “re-compose” the figure out of apparently disconnected parts. Although Bruegel’s “extra foot” has become somewhat of a joke, the fact that he paints a figural group in such a way that the viewer is forced to expend so much effort in order to reconnect parts with the body deserves more attention. Is this merely a clumsy, disjointed composition, representative of the supposedly clumsy and disjointed subject matter? Or, could it be evidence for Bruegel’s ambition to design a vernacular painting of rustic everyday life whose visual grammar is as worthy of close examination as a loftily painted historia; a willful effort to appeal to the viewer’s appreciation of a complex construct? Such a construction has a longer history with Northern artists who incorporate dramatic gestures or complex figural compositions into history paintings. For
245 Sullivan, Bruegel’s Peasants (1994), 50. A. Wied, Pieter Bruegel, Paris: Macmillan (1980), 173; C. Majzels, “The Dance in the Art of Pieter Bruegel the Elder,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (1977) 102-103.
example, Jan van Hemessen (1500-1566), who settled in Antwerp in 1524 after studying in Italy, employs dramatic gestures and daring projections in his work, while his figures, whom sometimes populate tavern or domestic scenes, often assume the classical poses of the Sistine Chapel or mimic graceful figures of Venetian pastorals.246 Having gleaned concepts of modeling and formal arrangement from his studies in Italy, Hemessen, along with painters such as Aertsen and Jan Massys, sought to incorporate formal elements of history painting into representations of the world of sixteenthcentury Antwerp. 247 Hemessen’s Christ and the Adulteress (1525, fig. 44) is just one example of the way in which the artist employs the use of hands to attract the viewer’s gaze and guide it through the composition. A crowded scene of figures surrounds Christ in the foreground, who bends down to write on the ground, and the adulteress woman, who stands at the right of the picture with her hands bound. Upon closer inspection of the woman and the two men who embrace her, we see a combination of hands and arms that are constructed in such a way that it is difficult to reconnect the hands to the person to whom they belong. This is especially the case for the constellation of three hands at the woman’s waist, which function to first draw the viewer’s attention and, second, to direct it downwards. The adulteress crosses her hands in front, while the man to her left reaches with his right arm and crosses over both of her hands. The gesture of the man’s hand on the right mirrors the gesture of the woman’s left hand. Between these two, the woman’s right hand extends and points downward. The similar gestures and dark clothing make it difficult to know whose hand is whose. This trio of hands, I would argue, offers an artistic comparison which provides insight for the function of Bruegel’s multiple feet—a complex construction that attracts, even inspires, prolonged and analytical viewing. Hemessen’s Calling of St. Matthew (1536, fig. 45) is a second example of such a practice.248 Multiple figures sit around a table, framing a collection of eight
246 Burr Wallen, Jan van Hemessen: An Antwerp Painter Between Reform and Counter-Reform, Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press (1983), 2-7. 247 On this development, see Gibson, Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Laughter (2006), 50-51 and Silver, Peasant Scenes and Landscapes (2006). 248 See also Parable of the Prodigal Son (1536, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), Wayfarer in a Brothel (1543, Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum), Calling of St. Matthew (ca. 1539-40, Vienna,
individual hands that, in an act of imaginary assemblage on the part of the viewer, must be reconnected with the bodies to whom they belong. Due to the construction of the three men on the left, closely nestled next to one another, and the shadow this creates, the mental energy and visual effort required to parcel out the constellation of crisscrossed hands also attracts prolonged viewing and a navigation of the painted space. Similar to the three hands before the adulteress and Bruegel’s third peasant foot, there is one hand in the picture that requires extra effort to reconnect, the right hand of the third man on the left, who stares at St. Matthew. Because his torso is obstructed from view, it takes a second to make out that it is this man’s left hand which reaches to grab coins in the center of the table. It takes even longer to discern that the right hand directly above this one, in the literal center of the painting, belongs to his right arm that must be extended across his chest. On the one level, like the crisscrossed hands in the previous painting and the twisted body of Bruegel’s server, the artistry of such a construction showcases difficultà.249 On another level, it attracts repeated viewing and forces the beholder to see the painting as parts, rather than one whole; to analyze more closely and begin the process of dissecting and rebuilding the composition.250 The formal qualities of the figural construction of Bruegel’s servers is set within an overall design that further highlights the mediation between art and nature, “artfully” rendering the “natural” peasant subject. I mentioned earlier that for decades art historians have recognized and puzzled over the fact that the diagonal composition of the table, including the position and distribution of certain figures around it, is one traditionally employed for depictions of the biblical story of Christ’s first miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana. Visually, the diagonal composition
Kunsthistorisches Museum), Ecce Homo, Calling of St. Matthew (ca. 1548, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). 249 On the importance of difficultà in Renaissance painting and literature, see David Summers, Michelangelo and the Language of Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981 and John Shearman, Mannerism, Harmondsworth, 1986. 250 See Puttfarken, The Discovery of Pictorial Composition (2000) for a discussion on the understanding of pictorial composition as made up of individual parts of the body, rather than a planimetric design. Interestingly, Pieter Bruegel the Younger “corrects” his father in his copy of the Peasant Wedding Banquet. Along with omitting the “third” foot of the server, Bruegel the Younger changes multiple aspects of the painting, such as the position of other feet under the table and the facial features of the peasants; presumably all done to make the picture seem more “natural.” On Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s practice of copying his father’s work, see the exhibition catalogue Brueghel – Brueghel (1998).
creates the illusion of a receding depth, which is difficult to depict in an enclosed space. The angle of the table allows for figures on both sides to be seen while simultaneously providing a partial view of the display of food and drink set before the guests. In addition to the print designed by Gerard van Groningen discussed earlier, other examples from Northern artists are abundant: for instance, a painting of the subject by Maarten de Vos, a contemporary and probable friend of Bruegel’s (fig. 46). In numerous contemporary paintings, woodcuts and engravings from the Netherlands, similar depictions of the marriage at Cana exist, such as pen and ink drawings by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550) (fig. 47), Dionisio Calvaert (1540-1619) (fig. 48) and Dirck Vellert (1480-1547) (fig. 49) as well as an anonymous Flemish painting (fig. 50). However, the diagonal composition was also extremely popular for depictions of the biblical story of the Last Supper—both in Italy and the North. The most monumental example is a Last Supper by Tintoretto (fig. 51). Cornelis Cornelisz. Buys (? –ca. 1524), De Vos and Coecke van Aelst also employ the design (fig. 52, 53, 54). Why would Bruegel have painted a feast of peasants in an ordered design, both in relation to the construction of figures and the overall composition, previously employed for ambitious depictions of lofty stories of the Bible? Is Bruegel, as some scholars have implied, simply using a popular diagonal composition for what had become a popular theme?251 Considering its monumental size, 114 x 164 cm, and the high standard of the medium, oil paint on panel, I argue that one issue at hand is an interest in engaging perceived notions of artistic norms and values by juxtaposing what might seem to be contradictory notions of art—history painting and a peasant scene. By comparing Raphaelesque designs—the figural constructions in both the Entombment and Psyche—to a similar composition in Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Banquet, we can see for the first time the complex and ambitious way in which a seemingly “natural” scene of peasants is artfully portrayed. Though Bruegel’s subject is a peasant feast, like Raphael’s Entombment it fits well within Alberti’s precepts for
251 Kavaler explains, “No doubt other painters would have recognized the formal sources of Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Banquet, but this would seem a more narrowly professional matter, an index of institutional practice.” Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 153.
decorum and understanding a historia.252 The diagonal composition of the table and the construction of the peasant figures in the foreground create a dramatic narrative in which a story is told with variety and decorum, in a style informed by the observation of nature and knowledge of the laws of perspective. Bodies harmonize together in both size and function. The figures move in a manner appropriate to their age, sex and station (take, for example, the seated child in the foreground, the meditative bride in the center and the monk on the right who displays the gesture for speech), and fit together to represent and explain the narrative. Excess is avoided and a variety of movements and poses are employed in which the composition of members accord well with one another and attract prolonged viewing. The visual tension of a rustic peasant scene and compositional artifice associated with history painting raises foundational questions regarding art and nature, a “natural” subject that is artfully portrayed, high form and low subject, sacred history referenced in a contemporary setting, questions which were also taken up by some of Bruegel’s Northern contemporaries, such as Jan van Hemessen and Pieter Aertsen.253 By appropriating a stylistic model of painting which emphasizes the artful construction of figural groups for a vernacular scene of peasants, Bruegel perfectly combines the artfulness of a “historia” for the art-less, or natural, subject of the peasant, thereby integrating “art” as much as “custom” as the regulating factor. In a highly competitive art market during the second half of the sixteenth century in Flanders, especially considering the popularity of Italianate painting, and amid an increasing artistic awareness of the educated elite, as evidenced in the way paintings and literature are discussed in the writings of Lombard, Lampsonius, De Heere and Ortelius, such artful artlessness, referencing figures and a composition from recognized works of painted historiae within a “natural” scene of peasants, would have situated art itself as a subject of the painting and, therefore, one topic of conversation.254 Speaking of De Heere, we are reminded again of the agenda of the rederijkers and Pléiade group for the cultivation and use of the vernacular language instead of
252 See p. 13-15 for literature on Alberti’s precepts, as well as possible ways the author was known in the North. 253 For studies of this element in the work of Pieter Aertsen, see Falkenburg (1995, 2004, 2007). 254 On the presence of “artful artlessness” in Renaissance Italy, see Patricia Emison, Low and High Style in Italian Renaissance Art, New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1997.
Latin. In order to foster the status of a language indigenous to Flanders, formal, stylistic and rhetorical elements of Latin and French were appropriated in order to “enrich” and “adorn” the vernacular. Likewise, multiple literary historians have explained that the theater of the rederijkers in the mid-sixteenth century had ties both to native Netherlandish and to classical traditions. Rederijkers articulated their newly acquired humanist ideas in traditional literary genres. While the dramatic forms remained basically those of late Medieval morality plays and farces, rederijker authors translated classical dramas and, by Bruegel’s time, began to use the persuasive methods of rhetorical argumentation in their own works.255 Similar to his rederijker counterparts and the humanist agenda for the cultivation of the vernacular language, Bruegel too employs a sophisticated grammar of visual concepts and pictorial elements traditionally reserved for representing events from the Bible for a vernacular scene of peasants. Whether visual or literary, all of these works of art were dependent on the astuteness of the reader or viewer to recognize, decipher and appreciate these diverse forms and resonances. In this context, it is important to restate and emphasize that in addition to numerous paintings by Bruegel, the art collections of Jongelinck and Noirot included multiple pictures by artists who more recognizably incorporated elements from an Italianate mode, one example being Frans Floris (see fig. 20, The Banquet of the Gods). These patrons came from the economic, political and professional elite of the Netherlands, a circle of sophisticated collectors who would have admired the Italianate
255 Meadow, Netherlandish Proverbs (2002), 17. Ramakers, “Bruegel en de rederijkers” (1997); see also Ramakers, “Kinderen van Saturnus” (2002); Ramakers, Spelen en Figuren (1996), where he discusses the interaction of various forms of artistic production—rhetoricians, theologians, poets, artists—in the implementation of theatrical processions. See also Marijke Spies, “Between Ornament and Argumentation: Developments in Sixteenth-Century Dutch Poetics,” in Jelle Koopmans, et al (eds.) Rhetoric-Rhétoriqueurs-Rederijkers, Amsterdam: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (1995), 117-122. The same phenomenon occurrs in Italy as well. For example, Konrad Eisenbichler explains that in the work of Giovan Maria Cecchi the traditional Renaissance religious play, the sacra rappresentazione, came to terms with the sixteenth century’s renewed interest in the classics and adapted itself to the new concepts of dramaturgy. Although the sacra rappresentazione, in its fifteenth-century garb, had disappeared, Cecchi was experimenting with a new religious drama which reversed Angelo Poliziano’s structural innovation. Whereas the Orfeo had placed secular, pagan content in a religious, fifteenth-century mould, Cecchi in his Il figliuol prodigo successfully dramatized a Christian story with the rules of classical and erudite comedy, while at the same time reflecting the spirit of mercantile, Renaissance Florence. See K. Eisenbichler, “From Sacra to Commedia,” Bibliotheque d’ humanisme et Renaissance, vol. 45, no. 1 (1983), 108.
history paintings of Floris.256 Noirot owned eleven paintings by Floris, which hung in his bedroom, or slaepcamer.257 His salon contained a large Acteon panel (which, upon the sale of his estate, was the most expensive item in his collection).258 Other painted subjects in his collection include: Paris with the three goddesses, Cleopatra with Cupid, and the story of Icarus or Phaeton.259 Jongelinck owned twenty-two paintings by Floris, including large cycles such as the Labors of Hercules and the Seven Liberal Arts, as well as sixteen by Bruegel, including the Series of the Seasons. Furthermore, Jongelinck’s brother, Jacques, created a series of over-life-size mythological figures in bronze for Nicolaes’s country house.260 The collections of Noirot and Jongelinck not only reveal a developed taste for religious and mythological pictures but also for depictions of local custom, such as peasant scenes, and landscape. Noirot’s collection also shows that Bruegel’s unique portrayal of peasants would have been viewed within a domestic interior that included paintings, such as those of Floris, with similar formal and stylistic elements, yet incorporated for a very different subject matter. Therefore, we are guaranteed that the viewers of Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Banquet would have had easy access to the types of pictures, namely painted historiae, which portray the very characteristics Bruegel employs for cultivating his vernacular style and they would have been able to compare and contrast the subject, style and creative abilities of the artists. As we saw earlier in my discussion of Erasmus’s Godly Feast, in addition to religious and moral instruction, Erasmus offers through the speech of Eusebius some indication that art, even the creative abilities of artists, were also topics of discussion during mealtime activities. Drawing attention to a mural, his painted garden within a garden, Eusebius states that, “We are twice pleased when we see a painted flower competing with a real one. In one we admire the cleverness of nature, in the other the inventiveness of the painter.”261 I am not arguing that the viewers of Bruegel’s painting of rustic life would not have considered the peasants and their actions in relation to their own socio-cultural 256 Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 51. See also C. van de Velde, Frans Floris (1519/20-1570). Leven en Werken (1975). 257 Goldstein, “Keeping up Appearances” (2003), 43. 258 Smolderen, “Tableaux de Jérôme Bosch, de Pierre Bruegel L’Ancien et de Frans Floris” (1995). 259 Ibid. 260 Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 51. 261 Erasmus, Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 39 (1997), 179.
context and interpreted them accordingly. On the one hand, as Walter Gibson and Claudia Goldstein have shown, paintings and objects in the dining room, such as dining ware, often depicted peasants and festivals to function as entertainment at dinner parties, inspiring laughter and contributing to the levity which was a recommended accompaniment to the meal.262 No doubt the upturned beer jugs represented one important aspect of a dinner party—light-hearted pleasure. At the same time, these manners, along with the lack of personal interaction between the peasant figures sitting at the table, offer for the viewer instruction on proper behavior by negative example. As Macrobius writes: “For a group of men to say nothing at all while stuffing themselves with food would be positively swinish.”263 In addition to all of this, however, I am proposing that the cultural connotations of peasant life cannot be separated from the ambitious way in which Bruegel represents it. In fact, Bruegel’s visual discussion of what constitutes art is fundamentally dependent on the status-lessness of the peasant class and its emerging distinction as representing a particularly Northern, vernacular style. In addition to what has been argued in the past, that Bruegel’s ambitious paintings of country folk either affirm or demean the status of the peasant in a changing economic environment, his use of complex mechanisms and references to artistic standards employed for history painting also serves to question what constitutes a proper work of art and validate his own style. I have shown in my discussion of the convivium tradition that plays and texts, such as Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, became occasions at dinner time for readers to both take pleasure in the texts and showcase their knowledge by closely analyzing formal aspects or offering commentary and interpretations. Discussion included laughter, appreciation, dissecting language and rhetorical structure in order to teach the rules of grammar. The companions in the Poetic Feast recite poetry, analyze difficult terms, resolve problems of rhyme and meter and compete to see who can give more in-depth readings of traditional literary texts. Likewise, for those wealthy elite seated in a dining room eating, looking at a painting depicting peasants also at table, Bruegel’s visual
262 Gibson, Pieter Bruegel (2006); Goldstein, “Keeping Up Appearances” (2003), 31, 80-142. See also Alpers, “Realism as a Comic Mode” (1975-6), 115-144, esp. 117-118, where she discusses the peasant subject in comic literature that was meant to be read in a convivial setting to produce laughter. 263 Macrobius, The Saturnalia, trans. by P.V. Davies, New York: Columbia University Press (1969), 47.
grammar, his artful manner of composition, would have been a subject of discourse as much as the peasants and the festive event on display. Implicit in this description of Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Banquet is a custom of viewing art that does not take the surface at face value, but considers diverse artistic practices allowing for a visual experience that is analytical and multivalent. Referential viewing is performative by its very nature; which is to say that the viewer and the knowledge he brings to the act of looking, the “beholder’s share,” are involved in the process of making meaning. With this idea in mind, I would like to return to the issue of whether or not Bruegel’s viewers would have recognized in this painting visual references to the wedding at Cana. Thus far, scholars have only investigated this possibility within the context of moral instruction, whether or not the moral values associated with the biblical story would have pertained to its new context.264 I would like to revisit the prospect within the context of a theological principle which was prominent during this period, recognizing sacred history in everyday life.265 As I just mentioned, the painting guides the viewer to reconstruct pictorial associations; the strong diagonal composition of the scene and the beer pourer on the left are, as far as I have been able to ascertain, unprecedented choices for a peasant feast. The diagonal design was most popular for depictions of the two most significant feasts in the New Testament, in which Jesus performed his first and last miracles: the transformations of water into wine at the wedding at Cana and bread and wine into his body and blood at the Last Supper. Although the use of such a composition and figural motif could be a matter of workshop practice, it is important to remember that these formal references would have been viewed by a group of people dining in the home of a wealthy Antwerp businessman and well acquainted with the tradition of hanging 264 See Sullivan, Bruegel’s Peasants (1994). Kavaler argues, “It is far from clear that the values associated with this device in religious pictures would have pertained to its new application. No doubt other painters would have recognized the formal sources of Bruegel’s painting, but this would seem a more narrowly professional matter, an index of institutional practice. Given the sometimes confusing exchange between sacred and secular imagery in the work of Aertsen, Beuckelaer, and their contemporaries, it appears unlikely that the viewer would have seen in Bruegel’s painting a significant reference to the Marriage at Cana and the values in implied.” Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 153. 265 Also applicable here is Thomas Greene’s description of this habit of mind as a particularly humanist practice. “Sub-reading” he explains is, “an ‘archaeological’ scrutiny, a decipherment of the latent or hidden or indecipherable object of historical knowledge beneath the surface; see “Petrarch and the Humanist Hermeneutic,” in Giose Rimanelli and Kennth John Atchity (eds.), Italian Literature: Roots and Branches, New Haven: Yale University Press (1976).
representations of historically significant banquets in a dining room, which was cited previously in Erasmus’s Godly Feast. While discussing the inventory of Johanna Greyns’ collection, taken upon her death in 1626, Jeffrey Muller explains that the subject of some of the paintings hanging in her dining room are, in one way or another, connected with the function of the room.266 For example, two panel paintings of the Supper at Emmaus hung next to a peasant market scene, as well as two panel paintings of a “cheerful” peasant and his wife.267 Bruegel’s youngest son, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), represents this practice in his depiction of the Sense of Taste, one of a series of five paintings, each devoted to one of the senses (1618, fig. 55). With the hunting lodge Castle Tervuren in the background, this painting is an ode to the rich and varied game supposedly to be found on the royal domains of Albrecht and Isabella.268 Taste, in the form of a nude woman, is seated at a table lavishly displaying roasted game, seafood, and fruit. A satyr is in the process of carefully pouring wine into the woman’s glass. Located on the wall behind the central table is a painting of the wedding at Cana, possibly after Frans Francken.269 To the left of this picture, hanging above the entrance into the busy kitchen, is a painting that precisely reproduces Bruegel the Elder’s design of the Fat Kitchen (fig. 56).270 Feasting peasants hang next to a biblical feast. Whereas the Fat Kitchen, located above the entrance to where the food is being prepared, is representative of the abundance of the victuals on display, the Wedding at Cana adds a religious tone to the pleasure taken in God’s creation. An additional level of interaction between these depictions of the sacred and profane is inspired by the action of the satyr standing in the space in front of the two pictures. In the midst of pouring wine into the woman’s glass, his pose and posture replicate the painted wine pourer behind him in the Cana wedding, the very moment when Christ performs his first miracle of turning water into wine. The similarity between these two 266 This was also the case in Italy; see Scott R. Walker, “Florentine painted Refectories, 1350-1500,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1979. 267 Muller, “Private Collections in the Spanish Netherlands” (1993), 200. 268 For the most recent discussion of this series of paintings, see Anne T. Woollett and A. van Suchtelen (eds.), Rubens en Brueghel: een artistieke vriendschap, exhibition catalogue, Den Haag: Mauritshuis, 2006; Barbar Welzel, “Sinnliche Erkenntnis, Wissenschaft und Bildtheorie: der Fünf-Sinne-Zyklus von Jan Brueghel d.Ä. und Peter Paul Rubens für das erzherzogliche Paar Albrecht und Isabella,“ in Barbara Mahlmann-Bauer (ed.), Scientiae et artes (2004), 231-245. 269 M. Diaz Padrón, et al (eds.), David Teniers, Jan Brueghel y los Gabinetes de Pinturas, exhibition catalogue, Madrid: Museo del Prado, 1992. 270 Woollett and Suchtelen, Rubens en Brueghel (2006).
figures creates reflexivity between the two scenes of consumption, encouraging conversation among the viewers in front of the painting about possible relationships among the various fictive spaces and what implications these might have for their own “real,” lived space, which is also depicted in the picture itself via the hunting lodge.271 In a similar fashion, the interaction of feasting viewers with Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Banquet creates a visual experience that is fundamentally reflexive; both viewer and painted figures engage in the same activity leading to a continuity between the two. What makes the particular visible association between Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Banquet and depictions of the wedding at Cana so striking is not only the perspective of the table, but also Bruegel’s attentive depiction and placement of the beer pourer in the left foreground (fig. 13, 14). In comparison to the same figure in Gerard van Groningen’s design, we can see that both men lean forward with knees slightly bent, resting their jugs lightly on their thighs while concentrating on the task at hand. In addition, a comparison between Bruegel’s peasant bride with that of Gerard’s reveals that the woman replicates in pose and posture exactly the traditional downward, meditative gaze compulsory for honorable brides during this period, which illustrated a humble heart and contemplative mind (fig. 15, 16).272 The possible mediation of a sacred story within a secular scene has not been extensively considered, probably for two reasons. First, the association has only been approached from a moralistic perspective, whether or not the temperate moral values associated with the compositional device in a religious picture would have pertained, whether directly or antithetically, to its new application.273 The second reason is the general characterization of sixteenth-century Netherlandish art, from Hieronymus 271 This interconnection of sacred and profane motifs also occurs in the Allegory of Sight. Venus, the goddess of love, displays for her young son, Cupid, a painting of Jesus restoring sight to a blind man. For a general study on paintings within paintings, see the exhibition catalogue by Pierre Georgel, La pienture dans la pienture, Dijon: Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1984. 272 On the tradition of the bride’s reserved demeanour, see Gibson, “Some Notes on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Peasant Wedding Feast,” Art Quarterly, vol. 28 (1965), 194-208 and Gibson, Pieter Bruegel (2006), 120, 216. Such a demeanour, coupled with a bridal crown and flowing hair was a tradition of virginal modesty in general. As illustrated in Gerard van Groningen’s depiction of the Wedding at Cana, this was the traditional way of representing the Cana bride. A literary example can be found in a poem by Jan van der Noot commemorating a wedding in 1563 in which the young lady receives her future husband’s offer of marriage with “her eyes cast down [heur ooghen nederwaert]”; see Jan van der Noot, Het Bosken en Het Theatre, W.A.P. Smit (ed.), Utrecht: HES Publishers (1979), 59. 273 Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 153; Sullivan, Bruegel’s Peasants (1994), 52.
Bosch to Bruegel, as a transitional step in the process by which secular interests gradually extricated themselves from the context of religious painting.274 As a result, the distinction between sacred and secular art is largely defined along iconographical themes. When the two are combined in the same painting, such as in Aertsen’s Market Stall or Bruegel’s Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, the theme that plays the most prominent visual role usually categorizes the image (i.e., “market scene” or “landscape”). This modern habit of viewing is wholly anachronistic and cuts against the grain of the sixteenth-century mindset, whether religious or artistic, viewing these images.275 Unlike modern attempts to divide images into neatly packed divisions of subject and style, it is likely that the habit of mind that viewed Bruegel’s pictures knew no concept of “genre.”276 We know that in the middle of the sixteenth century, terms such as “landscape” or “peasant scene” were used by notaries to describe pictures in a specific inventory, but these terms did not delineate any monolithically fixed notions of pictorial kind, nor the status of such a kind. Neither did they describe how a viewer should visually experience a painting, as is the case for modern categories of art. In order to discern the possible function of mediating religious scenes within paintings that, at first sight, seem to exclusively represent a landscape or activities of 274 Many proposals have been set forth to account for “the emergence of secular art” in sixteenth century; see, for example, Max J. Friedländer, Landscape, Portrait, Still-Life: Their Origin and Development, New York: Schocken, 1963; Keith Moxey, Pieter Aertsen, Joachim Beukelaer, and the Rise of Secular Painting (1977); on this development from an evolutionary perspective, see Silver, Peasant Scenes and Landscapes (2006). 275 See David Freedberg, “Allusion and Topicality” (1989), 53-65, where he discusses Bruegel’s practice of “dissimulation,” the way in which he situates biblical events in contemporary settings in order to address current political situations; Freedberg, “The Hidden God: Image and Interdiction in the Netherlands in the Sixteenth Century,” Art History, vol. 5, no. 2 (June 1982), 132-153, where he discusses the polarity of the sacred and non-sacred during the Catholic and Protestant Reformations, while at the same time “bearing witness to the contagiousness of the sacred, to the tendency of what is regarded as sacred to be carried over into apparently non-sacred objects and to leave its traces there.” See also Larry Silver, “God in the Details: Bosch and Judgement(s),” Art Bulletin, vol. 83, no. 4 (December 2001), 626-650. 276 Reindert Falkenburg, Mark Meadow and other scholars have noted that the issue of genre is a particularly fraught one for sixteenth-century Netherlandish art. See Meadow, “Bruegel’s Procession to Calvary” (1996). On the development of pictorial genres in the Netherlands, see Silver, Peasant Scenes and Landscapes (2006). See also R. Falkenburg, “Recente visies op de zeventiende-eeuwse Nederlandse genre-schilderkunst” (1991); Wolfgang Stechow and Christopher Comer, “The History of the Term Genre,” Allen Memorial Museum Bulletin, vol. 30, n. 2 (1973), 88-94; Zirka Zaremba Filipczak, Picturing Art in Antwerp, 1550-1700, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987; Hessel Miedema, Karel van Mander, Den grondt der edel vry schilder-const, Utrecht: Haentjens Dekker & Gumbert 1973, 2 vols.; L. De Pauw-De Veen, De begrippen ‘schilder’, ‘schilderij’ en ‘schilderen’ in de zeventiende eeuw, Brussel: Paleis der Academien, 1969.
everyday life, it is important to note that this practice is consistent throughout Bruegel’s work and has a longer history in earlier Netherlandish painting. This practice would have, therefore, created expectations that defined a habit of viewing. Issues of sight and insight, (spiritual) blindness and enlightenment, are fundamental to the culture of interiority in the fifteenth century as much as in the sixteenth century, as it is brought out in many texts belonging to the Modern Devotion and (Christian) Humanism. Not only are these spiritual issues the matrix within which early Modern education evolved in the Netherlands, they have turned out to be constructs for iconography essential to several types of devotional painting in fifteenth-century northern European art.277 They are also addressed in pictorial modes of paradox and irony operative in many types of sixteenth-century painting, such as Aertsen’s peasant and market scenes, and are the direct iconographic forbearers of Bruegel’s art. Central to this pictorial discourse is the function of the inconspicuous religious motif for the overall visual and intellectual experience of the painting. At stake in the majority of Bruegel’s paintings is the ability of the viewer to recognize subtle religious references or difficult-to-see motifs, then to “switch perspectives” and redefine the painting as a result of this visual revelation. One example, among many others, is his Census at Bethlehem (fig. 57), painted in 1566 and now in Brussels.278 In the hands of Bruegel, the small town in Judea is transformed into a sixteenth-century snow-covered Brabant village in which people gather in front of an inn to pay taxes. Instead of Emperor Augustus giving the orders, it is Charles V of Spain. The sign of the inn on the left is a green wreath and a placard bearing the coat of arms of Charles hangs on the front.279 Numerous people crowd in front of a table to perform their duty of paying taxes, as is illustrated by a figure in front of the table handing over money to an official in a fur-trimmed coat. People are portrayed
277 On this topic, see Brett Rothstein, Sight and Spirituality in Early Netherlandish Painting, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006; Joseph Koerner, The Reformation of the Image, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005; Jeffrey Hamburger, “Speculations on Speculation: Vision and Perception in the Theory and Practice of Mystical Devotion,” in Deutsche Mystik im abendländischen Zusammenhang: Neu erschlossene Texte, neue methodische Ansätze, neue theoretische Konzepte. Kolloquim Kloster Fischingen 1998. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag (2000), 253-388; Reindert Falkenburg, “Pieter Bruegel’s Series of the Seasons: On the Perception of Divine Order,” Joost van der Auwera (ed.), Liber Amicorum Raphaël de Smedt, Leuven: Peeters (2001), 253-275. 278 For a general discussion of this painting, see Roberts-Jones, Pieter Bruegel (2002), 180. 279
throughout the picture going about their daily activities of cleaning, playing, cooking and working. In the lower left foreground, a man cuts the throat of a pig; in the lower right corner, children play on the ice; a woman in the center sweeps snow; multiple men build a structure in the center background. In the right middle ground, a man stands at the door of a dilapidated shack. In the left background, figures traverse the frozen lake and just beyond the ice two tiny figures enter a church. In the right background, buildings in the village are falling apart. Roosters search for morsels of food, birds fly, people talk and the sun sets. Almost hidden in the crowd in the center foreground of the picture is a woman riding on a donkey pulled by a man. There is nothing about these two figures that sets them apart within the painting. Viewed in isolation, this motif is one more adjective that describes one theme of the painting, people en route to pay their taxes. However, because of a longer pictorial tradition of portraying a man, woman and donkey in just this manner (usually in pictures of the Flight into Egypt), we know the pair to be Mary and Joseph, the future mother and father of Christ. Having recognized this marginal, inconspicuous motif, the viewer must now reexamine the picture in light of this detail. What once were “secular” illustrations of everyday life in a sixteenth-century Brabant village must now be redefined in the context of the religious story this couple (located next to an inn) represents—the census at Bethlehem and birth of Christ. As described in St. Luke’s gospel (2:1-5), the story of the pregnant Mary and Joseph returning to be registered in Bethlehem directly precedes the birth of Christ, an event that is the pivotal point between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. As the story goes, Mary wrapped Jesus in a manger because there was no room in the inn. Seen in this context, the viewer projects into this Brabant village what he or she associates with the biblical narrative. The people standing in front of the inn are equally there because of a decree from Caesar Augustus as they are to pay taxes to Charles. The inn crowded with people becomes the one that had no room for the holy family. The dilapidated shack in the middle ground, with a cross on top of its roof, becomes a possible birthplace of Christ. The church in the left background and the decrepit buildings on the other side of the picture form the base of a triangle whose apex is located in the figures of Mary and Joseph. Rather than, or in addition to,
structures common in a contemporary Brabant village, they also serve as symbols for the Old and New Testaments. Although Bruegel’s multivalent painting could have been viewed as a comment on the socio-economic situation of his time, paralleling biblical and contemporary political figures, I have briefly emphasized the visual experience of navigating a picture that imbricates a religious story within an everyday scene. This process of negotiating sacred and profane, redefining illustrations of everyday life in the context of a religious story, is ignited by a subtle, inconspicuous motif that is only recognized after prolonged viewing. As a result, the viewer must shift gears and rethink each aspect of the picture in a new light. The example of the Census at Bethlehem also pertains to many other pictures by Bruegel such as the Fall of Icarus, Conversion of St. Paul, Adoration of the Magi in the Snow and the Series of the Seasons.280 Although in these examples we are dealing with the mediation of a religious or mythological story through small, out-of-the-way motifs, rather than more formal references such as the composition and figures I have identified in the Peasant Wedding Banquet, a similar analytical, projective way of viewing is at play. As Falkenburg argues regarding the landscape paintings of Joachim Patinir (ca.1485-1524), an artist who was highly influential for Bruegel: The function of these details is to lead the eye of the beholder beyond a superficial observation of the world and its natural beauties and to engage him in a dialectic between different ways of looking, between the observation of the beauty of the world and the acknowledgement of a spiritual reality in that world that can only be perceived with the eye of the mind, i.e. the discerning eye that is able to recognize these details and ponder their relationship within the painting and the viewing experience itself.281
Likewise, religious writers during this period, whether Protestant or Catholic, consistently instructed their readers to associate religious themes with moments in everyday life. As early as the fifteenth century, writers in the Netherlands associated 280 See, for example, Larry Silver, “Pieter Bruegel in the Capital of Capitalism,” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, vol. 47 (1996), 125-154; Reindert Falkenburg, “Doorzien als esthetische ervaring bij Pieter Bruegel I en het vroeg-zestiende-eeuwse landschap,” in De uitvinding van het landschap. Van Patinir tot Rubens, 1520-1650, Antwerpen: Museum voor Schone Kunsten, 53-65 and “Pieter Bruegel’s Series of the Seasons” (2001); Freedberg, “Allusion and Topicality” (1989). 281 R. Falkenburg, “The Devil is in the Detail: Ways of Seeing Joachim Patinir’s ‘World Landscapes’,” in Alejandro Vergara (ed.) exhibition catalogue, Joachim Patinir, Madrid: Museo del Prado (2007).
with the Devotio Moderna, or Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, instructed the devout to have Christ ever present before their eyes, no matter if it is during prayers or making bread. Their emphasis on seeing Christ present in the everyday develops from the centrality of progress in the virtues, spiritual exercises that lead to a more perfect and harmonious life, rather than to a kind of speculative or mystical union with God. All things—work, study and leisure—were dedicated to the edification, or exercising, of one’s spiritual self and the way this was acted out in daily interactions.282 In his treatise on conversion, John Brinckerinck (d. 1419) instructs: Work in such a way that you never forget [the Lord]. So when we go to eat we think: How shall I conduct myself now? St. Augustine answers us that we should approach eating as medicine. We are to strengthen the body so it may persist in the service of God…When we go to speak with someone, we should think: Dear Lord how should I conduct myself in this situation? And so whatever we do, whether thinking or speaking, keeping silent or working, going or standing, sitting or rising, going to bed or going to church, reading or praying, we should say: Dear Lord, how am I to do this? Shall I do it this way?283
As a result of the urban lay spirituality that develops in the Low Countries during the fifteenth century, partly due to writers such as Jan van Ruusbroec (12931381) and those associated with the Modern Devotion, leading up to the theological developments of the Protestant Reformation in the North, the locus of the good life is placed within “life” itself.284 By the sixteenth century the full human life is now defined in terms of labour and production, on one hand, and marriage and family life on the other. For example, Martin Luther (1483-1546), a prominent student of the educational program of the Devotio Moderna, sought to abolish the boundary separating the everyday life of production and reproduction from the good life of contemplation and holiness. The Christian is called to be holy in the midst of everyday life, not apart from everyday life. For Luther, there is no distinction between the “secular” and the “religious,” the monk and the shoemaker, the baptized and the
282 Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings, introduction by John van Engen, New York: Paulist Press (1988), 7-35. 283 Ibid., 226. John Brinckerinck (d. 1419) belonged to the earliest generation of the Modern Devotion, converted by the founder of the movement, Geert Grote. 284 For a discussion of this development, see Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1989), 210-218.
ordained, the carnal and the spirit-filled, the celibate and the married. All life is sanctified by God’s grace in Christ, and all vocations are Christian vocations. By denying any special form of life as a privileged locus of the sacred, Luther denies the very distinction between sacred and profane and hence affirms their interpenetration.285 Luther explains that when washing one’s hands before dinner, he should remember the holy meal for which every meal is a representation, the Last Supper, and perform hand washing as a ritual of purification in preparation to take part. Similarly, in Erasmus’s “Godly Feast,” a theologian who was also a prominent student of the Devotio Moderna, the character Eusebius invites Christ to be a part of their meal: “Now may Christ, the Enlivener of all, and without whom nothing can be pleasant, vouchsafe to be with us, and exhilarate our minds by his presence.” One of his guests, Timothy, points out, “I hope he will be pleased so to do; but where shall he sit, for the places are all taken up?” Eusebius responds, “I would have him in every morsel and drop that we eat and drink; but especially, in our minds.”286 As a result, a picture that might seem funny, moralistic or light-hearted when viewed only in terms of the subject matter represented could be transformed into a witty and penetrating visual experience if understood within the viewing context of the dining room and how dispositional facets of the image inspire the viewer’s memory and awaken a repertoire of visual, literary and religious associations.287 In doing so, the association of the “secular” Peasant Wedding Banquet with the “sacred” wedding at Cana implies as much about the intellectual, even spiritual, competency of the viewer as about his or her ability to analyze social behaviour or artistic practice. For, by recognizing a religious story within a secular scene, the viewer is not only inspired 285 On the other hand, the Catholic Reformation issued interdictions which sought to make the distinction in art even more concrete. There were recurrent objections to painters like Caravaggio who appear to “confuse” the everyday with the sacred. See also, Heide Wunder, “iusticia, Teutonice fromkeyt.’ Theologische Rechtfertigung und bürgerliche Rechtschaffenheit. Ein Beitrag zur Sozialgeschichte eines theologischen Konzepts,” in Bernd Moeller (ed.), Die frühe Reformation in Deutschland als Umbruch, Wissenschaftliches Symposion des Vereins für Reformationsgeschichte 1996, Heidelberg: Gütersloher Verlagshaus (1998), 307-332 286 Erasmus, Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 39 (1997), 181. 287 See also David Freederg, “The Hidden God” (1982), 143, where he discusses the way in which a symbol may generate associations from its use in other contexts; or, as Turner explains it, “that the latent and to a certain extent the hidden meanings of a dominant symbol in one context may be discovered by using exegetic reports on its significance in another.” V. Turner and E. Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, New York (1978), 247-248. For a broader discussion on the function of images in this context, see Margaret Miles, Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1985.
to remember his or her own meal as a religious act, but he or she also reenacts the performance of conversion locked into the biblical story, namely Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine.288 As Jesus transformed “secular” water into “spiritual” wine, so the viewer sees a sacred story within a scene of everyday life. In the Enchiridion, Erasmus instructs his readers on exactly how to enact such an insight: Let us imagine, therefore, two worlds, the one merely intelligible, the other visible. Since we are but pilgrims in the visible world, we should never make it our fixed abode, but should relate by a fitting comparison everything that occurs to the senses to the angelic world….. Therefore, whatever you observe in this material world, learn to refer to God and to the invisible part of yourself. In that way, whatever offers itself to the senses will become for you an occasion for the practice of piety.289
In Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Banquet, present reality and a biblical story, vernacular subject in a painterly style, urban and rustic convivial settings are elaborately layered within the visual experience, requiring its viewers continuously to negotiate, question and discuss shifting perspectives about art, society and spirituality.