By Sir Richard Temple at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts

The late paintings of Peter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525 – 1569) are full of symbolism and allegory whose meaning has been widely and differently interpreted. Some see Bruegel as a gifted, humorous peasant, others as a satirist and political commentator and yet others as a Renaissance humanist and mystic. There is no consensus on the significance of the paintings and hardly any documents to help the historian.

This thesis considers Neoplatonic humanist ideas at the heart of the Renaissance in Italy and in Flanders in the 16th century, relating them to the historical continuum known as the Perennial Philosophy. This concept is little understood today and this work traces its history and demonstrates that it was widely, if not universally, accepted in the Hellenistic era and in the Renaissance.

It also considers the tradition of religious mysticism in Germany, the Netherlands and Flanders throughout the late Middle Ages that led up to the Reformation and points out that this movement is also an expression of the Perennial Philosophy, citing the works of Meister Eckhart, the Rhineland mystics and the schools that came out of the Devotio Moderna.

The work considers the esoteric, ‘heretical’ school called the Family of Love that claimed among its adherents a number of highly illustrious artists, thinkers and politicians. Such men as Christoffe Plantin, Abraham Ortelius and Justus Lipsius spurned the religious turmoil of the period and rejected Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike in favour of an inner mystical state they called the ‘invisible church’. They were close to Bruegel, bought his paintings and, it cannot be doubted, shared his thought.

While there are no surviving documents to prove Bruegel’s personal connection with the Familists, the weight of circumstantial evidence, especially when seen in the context of the Perennial Philosophy, is compelling. However, it is the paintings themselves that open comprehensively and convincingly to an esoteric interpretation – once one has the key that unlocks their meaning. This thesis provides that key and leads the reader through an analysis of seven of Bruegel’s last paintings.

The Introduction consists of two sections; the first summarises the discoveries and
opinions of scholars and art historians during the last seventy years and their differing
and often incompatible views as to Bruegel‟s religious and social status and the
significance of his art. The second section analyses in some detail his painting The
Numbering at Bethlehem along the line of esoteric ideas and symbolism that will be
developed throughout the whole work .

The form of the ideas of this thesis could be illustrated by a picture of three concentric circles of which the outer would be the Perennial Philosophy – what Renaissance thinkers regarded as the body of truth drawn by the ancients from their knowledge of the cosmos  and which, like the universe, has no external boundary. In writing about the Perennial  Philosophy I have cited Plato and Hellenistic and Renaissance Neoplatonists as well as writers of the 20th-century, among whom are Ananda Coomaraswamy and René Guénon  and writers associated with their ideas; I have also quoted the theosophist W. Thackara.
Within this is the second circle containing aspects of the Perennial Philosophy that found expression in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance periods and which culminated in Antwerp in the 16th-century. What may at first appear to be diverse influences are drawn from Renaissance „paganism‟, the mysticism of Meister Eckhart and his followers as well as „gnostic‟ or „heretical‟ schools such as the Adamites with whom Hieronymus Bosch was associated. At the centre of all this – in the innermost circle – is Bruegel or, rather,  his paintings, for the man himself is more or less silent and invisible. Yet the testimony of the later paintings is like a kernel containing the wisdom of the Perennial Philosophy.
The paintings are there for all to see and yet their colours, forms and narratives are a veil
– albeit a veil of great beauty – that covers a high order of knowledge. They are,
therefore, esoteric.

In fact the form of the ideas set out here is necessarily linear but we can remind ourselves that the right to speak of the ultimate truths of Man and the universe was regarded in the 16th-century as traditionally belonging to the realm of prophets, poets, mystics and artists.
Such men spoke in multi-layered symbols and their vision is not limited to mens and
ratio only.

Part I is mainly concerned with the now partly forgotten language and ideas in
which such philosophical questions were considered.

Chapter 1, then, sets out the case for the Perennial Philosophy as it has been understood in the 20th century with quotations from, among others, Aldous Huxley, Rufus Jones, W. Thackara and William Quinn who set out what they regard as its basic tenets. Among ancient writers cited are Dionysius the Areopagite and Duns Scotus Erigena generally regarded as the agents through whom the Perennial Philosophy passed to the West.
Introduced here are the concepts of mysticism and esotericism – themes which naturally run throughout the whole work – which are presented to the reader in the light of traditional understanding.

Chapter 2 goes to the Greek sources of the European branch of the Perennial Philosophy: namely Plotinus and his followers the so-called Neoplatonists – among them Porphyry and Iamblichus. Outlines of Plotinian cosmology and psychology are given in some detail  since they are the basis of so much of medieval and Renaissance spirituality.

Chapter 3 considers aspects of early Christian thought in the light of perennial ideas.
Here we find the early appearance of tension between the forces of institution and the
forces of spiritual freedom. Origen, the father of the allegorical method of interpreting
sacred scripture, is cited in connection with esoteric levels of symbolism in the Gospel.
The idea of gnosis is considered and the eventual isolation of various gnostic sects that
came to be regarded as „heretics‟.

Chapter 4 discusses these problems further and emphasises the importance the mystical and esoteric aspects of spirituality both within and outside the doctrines imposed by the Church. It traces the origins of 2nd-century gnostic sects whose beliefs and teachings survived into the 16th-century. Read here Chapter 1 to 4

Chapter 5, drawing on the writing of Rufus Jones, traces the historical continuity of
perennial philosophical thought and practice from antiquity up to the eve of the
Reformation. It considers the mystical tradition, inherited from Dionysius and passing
through Eckhart and the Rhineland mystics, that produced the Imitatio Christi and the Theologica Germanica. This chapter stresses the importance of contemplative prayer or meditation and shows how this practice was the basis of spiritual movements, under the name of the Devotio Moderna, such as the Friends of God and the Brotherhood of the Common Life.

Chapter 6 looks at the Perennial Philosophy acting on Neoplatonist humanists and
mystics of the Italian Renaissance. Reference is made to Edgar Wind‟s work on
Renaissance esotericism and Andrea Solario‟s portrait of Christoforo Longoni is analysed in the light of the idea of self-knowledge as a spiritual exercise and as a central concept of this thesis.

Chapter 7 brings us to immediate and direct influences on Bruegel. These were free thinking humanists and mystics who occupied the no-man‟s-land between Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists; men like Sebastian Franck, Dirck Volckertz Coornhert and Abraham Ortelius were adherents of the „invisible church‟ where God was understood as „an event in the soul‟ which could be independent of external forms, rites and doctrines.  Many of them, such as Ortelius, Christophe Plantin and perhaps Justus Lipsius belonged to the sect known as the Family of Love whose leader, Hendrik Niclaes, was the author of the mystical allegory Terra Pacis that recounts the journey from the „Land of Ignorance‟ to the „Land of Spiritual Peace‟. Bruegel was closely associated with, if not a full member, of this group.

Chapter 8, drawing on the writings of Herbert Fränger, considers the art of Hieronymus
Bosch and his association with the movement known as the Brethren of the Free Spirit among whom was an extreme group called the Adamites for whom Bosch painted The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Common aspects of both Bosch and Bruegel are discussed. This chapter discusses the direct relationship in sacred tradition between art and meditation and cites an example of Tibetan culture. It ends with a discussion of Abraham Ortelius‟ remarks concerning Bruegel; in particular his observation that he „painted what cannot be painted‟. Read Here chapter  5 to 8

In Part II, six of Bruegel‟s late paintings are looked at in detail with the aim of assigning
their message to one of the three stages of man‟s possible spiritual evolution.

The Adoration of the Kings

The Massacre of the Innocents

Chapter 9 deals with The Adoration of the Kings and The Massacre of the Innocents
whose psychological commentary calls us to see the truth of the human condition – that
human beings, enmeshed in the demands of temporal life, do not see that they live in  spiritual darkness and ignorance. Read Chapter 9

The Road to Calvary

Chapter 10, analysing The Road to Calvary, shows that it not only illustrates the
consequences of man‟s stupidity but at the same time it indicates that hope of redemption lies in the evolution of consciousness.

The Harvesters

The Fall of Icarus

This possibility is further developed in the symbolism embedded in The Harvesters and The Fall of Icarus where the work associated with plowing the land and harvesting the corn is an allegory of spiritual work. Read here Chapter 10

The Peasant Wedding Feast

Finally, in Chapter 11, it is argued that the painting known as The Peasant Wedding
Feast is in fact Bruegel‟s mystical commentary on The Marriage at Cana – the
miraculous transformation, symbolised by the changing of water into wine, which takes place when God and man are united. According to Matthew Estrada, whose ideas influence parts of the chapter, this event is sometimes known as the alchemical wedding.
But the circumstances of this process are mysterious in that they do not take place in the material world. The main burden of the thesis is to investigate that „other world‟ to which Bruegel had access and where, according to spiritual authorities, spiritual transformation takes place. Read here Chapter 11 and conclusion


Text of TERRA PACIS and commentary relating to ideas of the Perennial Philosophy and
to paintings by Peter Bruegel. Read Here