Pieter Bruegel as an Interpreter of Ultimate Reality and Meaning
Glenn Jacobs, University of Massachusetts, Boston , U.S.A.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder ( 1525-1569) represents an iconoclastic as well as iconographic development in Northern European painting: his a rt is and was both old and new. He rejected the mimicry of immediately post-Renaissance developments in Italian painting (i.e. , mannerism) by his contemporaries, although he himself felt no qualms about eclecticall y borrowing these elements for his own work. In effect. he was, according to many texts, a virtual “one-man Northern Renaissance’ in his synthesis of traditional Flemish elements (e.g. iconic metaphors and symbols, genre motifs – even in religious painting – and the socio-culturally evolved style of Flemish-Gothic super-realist drafts manship) with borrowed and invented ones.
Few authenticated biographical documents exist. They include: a list ing recording Bruegel’s acceptance into the painters’ guild (St. Luke) of Antwerp as master in 1551; two letters (1561, 1565) by the Italian geographer Scipio to the Antwerp cartographer Abraham Ortelius inquiring about their mutual friend’s health; a notation in a Brussels church register (summer, 1563) verifying his marriage to Pieter Coeck’s (his first teacher) daughter, Mayken; and Carel van Mander’s biography of him, published 35 years after his death ( 1604) in a volume entitled Het Schilder-Boeck ‘The Book of Painters’. There are also two portrait prints, one by a contemporary, Philip Galle, bearing a Latin verse at the bottom declaring Bruegel to be the successor of Hieronymous Bosch.
According to van Mander, he was born in a village (Brueghel, near Breda) in the duchy of Brabant near the border of present-day Holland and Belgium – one of 17 provinces then a hotbed of Calvinism, Anabaptism, and Flemish nationalism. However, the exact place and date of his birth are somewhat apocryphal. His friend Ortelius tells us he died in 1569 ‘in the flower of his age,’ or what was then considered the medial point of one’s life – his forty-fifth year.
This implies that he was born in about 1525 and was twenty-six when he was admitted as a master into the guild of St. Luke. Bruegel studied under the painter, scholar and architect, Pieter Coeck (date unspecified) and after Coeck’s death in 1550, he went to work in the studio of Hieronymous Cock, a painter and copper engraver who founded a publishing house (from which Cock dominated the printing trade in the Low Countries) in Antwerp, then a cosmopolitan city.
Cock’s publishing house, called At the Sight of the Four Winds, was a meeting place for artists and the intelligentsia. In 1551 Bruegel was in Rome, probably under Cock’s auspices, where he met Giulio Clovio, the famous miniaturist with whom Bruegel occasionally collaborated and to whom he presented at least three of his works. By 1557, he had returned to Antwerp and had completed his first dated painting, “Landscape with Christ Appearing to the Apostles.’
However, during the next four or five years he was preoccupied as a designer for engravings and restricted himself to subjects that could be reproduced in large numbers .
Many of these entailed the diabolic iconography of Hieronymous Bosch, especially the two series The Seven Deadly Sins, and The Virtues. These engravings and some of his paintings (e.g. Dulle Grief ‘Mad Meg,’ “The Triumph of Death,’ and ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’) have closely identified Bruegel with Bosch but they mark only one aspect of Bruegel in his use of traditional and folk iconography.
After his marriage in 1563 to Mayken, the daughter of Pieter Coeck (his first teacher) , two sons were born , Pieter (known as ‘Hell’ due to his own preoccupation as a painter with his father’s and Bosch’s diabolic scenes) in 1564, and Jan (also to become a painter, whose taste for sartorial splendor won him the nickname “Velvet’) in 1568. Bruegel died suddenly on September 4 , 1569 while working on a set of pictures commissioned by the Brussels City Council to commemorate the completion of the Brussels-Antwerp Canal.
- THE INTERPRETER
What qualifies Bruegel as an interpreter of ultimate reality a nd meaning?
Superficially the link with Bosch would seem to provide an answer. Bosch’s phantasmagoria, his drolleries and horrific visions appear to link Bruegel with the surrealists of modern times.
As some have pointed out, however, even Bosch’s visions are not as ‘ unconscious’ as they appear, for he used metaphors and symbols with decipherable traditional meanings.
Moreover, already in Bosch we see a hazy line separating hell and man’s sin and folly-ridden existence on earth. Bruegel moves several steps away from this, for while he began by drawing Boschian subjects, his most Boschian work represents the penetration of the fantastic into the everyday world.
It is really in the later paintings that Bruegel’s mature view of what G .I. Gurdjieff called the ‘terror of the situation’ seeps in.
Bruegel’s is an inner-worldly mysticism , a mysticism focusing on the mundane world much in the way that certain Sufi, Zen and shamanistic doctrines do.
The more obvious drolleries of Bosch and Bruegel paradoxically are parables, and like biblical parables, become worn. Bruegel profited from Bosch but evolved a style of his own in his secularization of hell (Dulle Grief is an ordinary peasant woman in armor leading an army through hell) and in his turn toward-in many paintings – totally secular subjects . His religious subjects were not devotional altar-pieces but were anti-clerical and anti-elitist, among other things. In other words, for Bruegel the esoteric is a part of the exoteric.
It is Bruegel’s interpretation of folly, his ironic conception of the human condition, his demystification of biblical events, and his capacity for establishing links between people’s private troubles and public issues, that distinguishes him.
In short, the major themes are : the debunking, or demystifying of great events, the development of a social dramaturgy , and ‘scale ‘ or a sense of the simultaneity of human events and levels of experience and reality.
The debunking motif (demystification) refers to what might be called ‘skepticism by impartiality,’ a sort of stripping away of facades. This is an act subversive in itself since we take these facades for granted or at their face value.
Thorough description is enough to erode the credibility lent to them by formulas, propaganda and ideologies, including those romanticizing the past. The notion of dramaturgy is one native to Bruegel’s own time – the metaphor (or topos) of the world as a stage, that is, of people conceived as actors playing roles in the play constituted by social reality.
It is a play set in motion by impersonal or unapprehended forces. Scale refers to the graded levels of reality within which the human condition unfolds.
In the context established here, we move from the individual, to society, history, Nature (landscape), and the cosmos .
Bruegel lived through a time of tremendous turmoil. He rubbed shoulders with and befriended the literati of The Four Winds Circle, men who overtly and covertly participated in the Dutch Reformation. Leading figures such as the geographer Ortelius, the theologian-philosopher Coornhert, and Hans Franckert and Christopher Plantin were close friends. Van Mander writes that Bruegel was an adroit observer, who in the company of Franckert often went to the countryside to observe -often in disguise- peasant folkways . These forays have been preserved in Bruegel’s paintings depicting peasant weddings and celebrations. Moreover, his work was highly critical, so much so that on his deathbed he requested his wife to have much of it burned for fear of her having to answer for them to the Inquisition.
How are the aforementioned themes – debunking, dramaturgy, and scale – incorporated into his work?
Take, for example ‘Landscape With The Fall of Icarus.‘ It is the only painting Bruegel did with a non-Biblical mythological subject. W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ describes it:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully a long; …
In Bruegel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash. the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky.
Had somewhere to go and sailed calmly on.
The painting shows Icarus, barely discernible, already submerged but for his legs. The ploughman in the foreground, the fisherman with his back to us, the shepherd leaning on his crook staring at the blank sky , his back to Icarus, the ship sailing away from Icarus to the horizon as the tones of earth and water fade toward the splashing pastels of a setting sun on the horizon, all underline Bruegel’s comment on the folly of human ambitions.
He had , as other Northern intellectuals, been familiar with Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly and the tradition of the “fool literature’ of the time, especially Brandt’s ·Ship of Fools’ (The Narrenschiff, 1494).
The painting represents a rendering of the German proverb: ‘No plough comes to a standstill because a man dies.’ As such, it establishes a continuity of myth and the times, but rather than make the event tragic he makes it inconsequential next to the mundane pursuits at hand. We come upon the actors in tableau , frozen as in a movie still about to come into action; the splash frozen too – creates a tension but one soon to be exhausted and consumed by the natural splendor of the sunset.
Here the painter has produced an eidetic effect: he has captured the event’s meaning while at the same time debunking its grandiosity.
The mundane elements of work and subsistence capture our attention, until as an afterthought we notice pale Icarus about to disappear. All of this is cradled in nature so that the painting becomes a pageant of indifference with a sense of cosmic irony. It is the scale of nature which makes the scene great though the actors in both harmony and tension with nature are unaware of the forces at work.
Hence, Bruegel’s ‘throwing away of the title ,’ a technique borrowed from the mannerists whom this painting debunks as well. Here Bruegel has entered a controversy over the desirability of Italian painting that raged among Flemish painters at the time. The realism of the Flemish plowman, anticipating in style and flavor Thomas Hart Benton’s rural apotheosis, the barely discernible corpse in the wooded area in the left middle ground , the theme of the fall, and the fragile make-believe classicized buildings moving toward the horizon to which all goes and from which everything comes, all point to a rejection of the hegemony of classicism, the debunking (relativizing) of mythologies superimposed from the outside, and an identification with indigenous Netherlandish elements represented by the peasantry.
In the “suicide of Saul’ Bruegel closely follows the Old Testament story in the thirty-first chapter of the First Book of Samuel ( 1-5).
In the foreground, pouring through a gully formed by a steep slope on the right and a rocky precipice on the left , are multitudes of armor-clad Philistines and fleeing Israelite troops : they are individually discernible but are fused into a prickly mass of lances, like the lines of force in a magnetic field.
Moving back toward the middle ground, the spears recede into a small plateau on which a horrible slaughter has taken place. On a rocky ledge to the left, Saul and his armor-bearer have impaled themselves on their swords as four of the uncircumcised wend their way around the rocks to ‘abuse’ them. Finally, we move off to an idyllic landscape incongruously conveying peace and tranquility, as in the Icarus painting .
This is another instance of the throwing away of the title. This particular biblical episode was an uncommon one in painting although its allegorical significance lies in the theme of the punishment of man’s pride which alienates him from his God. Important too is the fact that the soldiers are all dressed in the costume of Bruegel’s time . Bruegel had first-hand observations of war, having witnessed some of the Spanish atrocities in Flanders.
In effect the diminished significance of Saul’ s prideful suicide is owing to its apposition with the equally fatuous altruistic suicide of the mass of soldiers. Bruegel has demystified his subject – the pride of man – and has also demystified the grandeur of war , for here, the human one and the many are the same: equal and unimportant.
In a sense Bruegel has abstracted his subject for he has created types (men as species). He never painted portraits and his sketches, finely wrought as they are in the best mas ter’s style, are really intricate costume studies – ‘dictionaries of detail ‘ as they have been called. Modern art students have som etimes said that Bruegel’ s use of local color could be instructive in itself without reference to the subject.
This painting retains the quality of a landscape and again emphasizes scale. While man is not depicted as living harmoniously with nature as he is, for example, in Bruegel’s landscape drawings and engravings and his paintings of the seasons, there is conveyed a sense of man’s incompleteness for not doing so and consequently, for the mechanicality of his behavior.
There is an organicity in Bruegel’s landscapes which has moved at least one scholar to impute a ‘sort of cosmic or at least terrestrial animism ‘ to them. The landscape is no mere prop . If Bruegel makes any moral judgment in his work here, it must rest upon the extent to which his characters harmonize with nature or be bent to its purposes.
As G .I. Gurdjieff put it, man’s passivity becomes a means for nature’s ‘involutionary and evolutionary construction’ wherein he is a slave to events.
In a similar painting, “The Conversion of St. Paul’ we see a Renaissance army with its back toward us, winding through a mountain path. Far into the background we finally locate Paul lying o n the ground.
Again we are more impressed with the mountain scenery and the larger painted figures than we are with our “hero.’ Even the horses’ behinds command our attention before we notice Paul. The army may represent the cruel Spanish Duke of Alba’s inquisitorial campaign as well as the proverb , ‘Pride goeth before a fall. ‘ Nonetheless, the themes come through clearly again. Van Mander noted that Bruegel’ s chief impression from his Italian journey was that of the Alps .
Of his biblical themes, perhaps his greatest tour de force is ‘The Procession to Calvary.’ The gist of the painting can be summarized in a contemporary joke about the day of crucifixion in which, as Jesus painfully moves under his burden toward Calvary, a wave of excited whispering moves up and down the lines of spectators on either side of his path: ‘The Master’s lips are moving, they’re moving-he’s saying something. What is he saying?’ Finally it is determined. In a weak and cracking voice Jesus is singing: ‘ I … love a parade … ‘ ‘The Procession to Calvary’ contains everything but a hot dog stand. (In fact, it nearly contains that too, for it depicts among other things, a man selling cider). This painting too, is set in a panoramic landscape and constitutes an anthology of aphorisms.
The sunny landscape teems with human life – the ambience has drawn a festive crowd to witness a public execution. In the middle ground the procession – the red thread of Spanish uniformed soldiers – wends its way across the picture curving up toward the right; in the background the execution hill is ringed by people.
The sky darkens from day to night as the procession moves toward Calvary: the hill contains gallows and gibbet wheels used for punishment of criminals. The two crosses are in position; a hole in the ground is being prepared for the third.
Nearby on a hillock there is a double gallows on which yesterday’s victim swings. In the distance, there is a second gallows with its corpse; the crowd meanders by a double row of wheels on high poles which on the morrow will be draped with new victims.
Only after some scanning can we find Jesus – he is in the dead center of the picture, collapsing under the weight of the cross. Ahead, accompanied by two priests (one’s face is hidden by a black cassock) in a horse-drawn wagon are the two thieves. The populace flows out of the town in the background and includes frolicking children engaged in games such as pole-vaulting. For the most part, the spectators are in a festive mood (the painting contains more than five hundred distinct people). Few are mourning. The picture is crammed with incidental activity: here a man stoops to find his hat ; people stare vacantly, idly, amused, interested; a girl lifts her skirts to ford a puddle gesturing to her playmate who has already crossed; people walk arm in arm; and the cart driver nonchalantly leans on his horse. Somewhat to the left and below Christ are Simon of Cyrene and his wife, being entreated by the soldiers to help Christ bear the burden – they resist vigorously. As a show of piety, Simon’s wife wears a rosary and a cross. This detail is a condemnation of hypocritical/clerical Christianity.
The authentic mourners are in the right foreground with St. John , Mary and the two holy women at the visual center of the cameo. Fascinating is the archaic fifteenthcentury style of the Pieta , an intentional concession to mannerism used – with characteristically elongated figures – to idealize the subject.
A ‘funky’ windmill perched impossibly on a high rocky pedestal caricatures the cross and symbolizes folly . It is diagonally counterpoised with a gibbet wheel in the right foreground: it also underlines the fealty to folk/peasant values. An elongated animal’s skull lies below it to the right of the mourners in the lower right hand corner of the picture. This is a depiction of the New Testament reference to Golgotha as the place of the skulls. Ominous black carrion birds fly overhead.
In effect, what we have here is a fusion of human, natural , and cosmic action.
The simultaneity of human activities represents the fact that even during seemingly auspicious moments people are seldom aware of the reciprocal effects of natural , social, and historic forces. On the human level we can speak of this as an ·ecology of games,’ as people willy-nilly pursuing their interests and little scenarios sometimes including or being unwittingly included and affected by other people’s (and other forces’) games.
An important aspect of this painting, which was completed in 1564, is that it must be considered a record of the Inquisition in Flanders. As we know from contemporary society and history , executions are often the climaxes of social dramas whether we call them examples of ‘degradation ceremonies,’ dramas of victimage, or societal morality plays .
‘The Procession to Calvary’ is a depiction of one of many scenarios of humiliation staged by the Spanish theocratic – monarchical complex in the Netherlands: it recalls the spectacular pageants held throughout the sixteenth century. In the Netherlands, they were scenarios of humiliation styled by the Spanish hegemony. In other places like Venice , they were simply spectacular theatrical events.
Philip II, the Hapsburg son of Charles V , was bequeathed Spain and the Netherlands upon Charles’ abdication in 1555. Charles, while a strong supporter of the counter-Reformation, was popular in the Netherlands. Philip, a Spaniard by birth, was a more fanatical Catholic than his father and became absentee ruler of the low countries. He saw the Netherlands and its 17 provinces, each with its own local government, as a threat to his power and as a hotbed of Calvinist and Anabaptist heresy. As a result he ruled through ambitious local clerical potentates such as Granville (who collected Bruegel’s paintings!) and lieutenants dispatched to administer and squelch rebellion (the Duke of Alba a nd Margaret of Parma). The result was torture, atrocity and repression which resulted in the Eighty Years War, officially begun in 1567, two years before Bruegel’s death.
Much of this was carried out under the Edict of 1555 (The Edict of Blood) a republished edict unenforced by Cha rles but carried out with a vengeance by Philip. Because of its literal enforcement, it is re printed here to provide background for ‘The Procession to Calvary’ and the paintings to follow:
‘No one shall print, write, copy, keep, conceal, sell, buy, or give in churches, streets, or other Places, any book or writing made by Martin Luther, John Ecolampadius, Ulrich Zwinglius, Martin Bucer, John Calvin or other heretics reprobated by the Holy Church; … nor break, nor otherwise injure the images of the holy Virgin, or canonized saints ; … nor in his house hold conventicles, or illegal gatherings. or be present al any such in which the adherents of the above-mentioned heretics teach, baptize, and form conspiracies against the Holy Church and the general welfare …. Moreover. we forbid all lay persons to converse or dispute concerning the Holy Scriptures, open or secretly, especially on any doubtful or difficult matters, or to read, teach, or expound the Scriptures, unless they have duly studied theology and have been approved by some renowned university; … or to preach secretly, or openly, or to entertain any of the opinions of the above-mentioned heretics; … such perturbators of the general quiet are to be executed, to wit: the men with the sword and the women to be buried alive, if they do not persist in their errors i.e .. confess and repent; if they do persist in them then they are to be executed with fire; all their property in both cases being confiscated to the crown … we forbid … all persons to lodge, entertain, furnish with food, fire, or clothing, or otherwise to favor any one holden or notoriously suspected of being a heretic; … and any one failing to denounce any such we ordain shall be liable lo the above-mentioned punishments … The informer, in case of conviction, shall be entitled to one-half the property of the accused, if not more than one hundred pounds Flemish; if more, then ten percent, of all excess· (Wilenski. 1955. p. 40)
As we witness modern scenaric contrivances such as commercial sports events in the name of women’s liberation , military parades in neo-colonialist capitals, televised congressional hearings on political corruption, and the sociopolitical drama staged by international cartels and their cooperating government elites as they move the world toward economic depression, war and the resurgence of fascism, Bruegel gives us pause to think about the transpersonal forces that move us.
Other paintings which record the rule of terror of the Inquisition are the Boschian ‘Triumph of Death‘ ( 1568) which details an encyclopedia of tortures meted out by an army of skeletons, and ‘The Massacre of the Innocents,’ a painting set in a snow-covered 16th Century village.
The latter recalls the New Testament tale of Herod’s efforts to kill the newborn Jesus by murdering all boys under two years of age. Here in Bruegel’s rendition, is a raid on a Flemish hamlet by armored cavalry led by a black-clad horseman (possibly Alba). At first, the picture looks like a peaceful winter scene, but closer inspection reveals, again in the center, a stationary group of mounted soldiers impassively watching swords men and lance rs butchering baby boys while their distraught parents weep, struggle or turn away in horror from the slaughter. In a companion painting ( 1566), ‘The Numbering of Bethlehem,‘ we encounter a similar populated snow-covered haml et with Joseph and Mary hardly discernible.
Both pictures, like ‘Calvary ,’ represent indifference; the first to suffering, and the other, indifference to one’s fellow man. Ironically, perhaps it is the message of these paintings which afforded Bruegel sufficient protective coloration to avoid prosecution under the Inquisition. They appear – upon superficial inspection – to be no more than innocuous renderings.
How else to explain the fact that clerics such as Granvelle collected them? Perhaps their decorative value was diversionary.
In the scenaric “The Procession to Calvary’ we see the recurrence of the moral drama of Christ. The mannerist-styled holy family of mourners is a deliberate use of anachronism so that archaism is underlined in the historical context of the Inquisition in the Netherlands. This marks a departure from the common medieval use of anachronism where classical subjects were naively depicted in medieval garb. Herod and Christ are rooted in sixteenth Century sod. Speaking of the ‘drama of Christ’ P.O. Ouspensky notes :
In this drama there was nothing spontaneous, unconscious or accidental. Every actor knew what words he had to say and at what moment; and he did in fact say exactly what he had to say and in the exact way he had to say it. This was a drama with the whole world as an audience for hundreds and thousands of years. And the drama was played without the smallest mistake, without the smallest inexactness, in accordance with the design of the author and the plan of the producer. for in compliance with the idea of esotericism the re must certainly have been both an author and a producer ( 1931 , 1971 , p. 26).
Who the ”author and producer” are, we come to in the next section.
A major philosophical aspect of Bruegel’s representations is the docta ignorantia, the idea that the original ground of all things lies beyond Being and Knowledge. This doctrine formed a large part of the humanism which Bruegel represented. It makes its appearance in the early Middle Ages and has its basis in Greek and Arab esoteric thought.
It comes down through Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, Jacob Boehme and Giordano Bruno. The docta ignorantia, a neo-platonic ‘ idealistic nominalism ,’ is propounded by Cusa, who claims that empirical knowledge apprehends only an inner world of ideas and serves as signs of things, but is different than things themselves.
The mind knows only what it contains, as contrasted with true essences of things. Hence, human thought only possesses conjectures – modes of representation congruent with its own nature .
All this assumes the knowledge of non-knowledge, which, paradoxically, is the only way out of rational science (as opposed to ‘ real’ empirical science, it is the relations between ideas) to signless, immediate union of knowledge with true Being.
In other words, man is oblivious to his purpose in life. He is a series of automatisms – he is mechanical. However, his mec hanicality can be pierced by ‘learned ignorance’ (docta ignorantia) which exemplifies a union of opposites.
All of this appears in the Renaissance as Neo-Platonism, pantheism, Boehme ’s symbol of the organismic unfolding and manifestation of the universe in nature (the macrocosm in the microcosm) , Bruno’s monad , even in numerology ( number mysticism and symbolism), astrology, alchemy, and magic.
This genealogy of ideas attains ideological significance in the reformation, in the anti-clerical and , therefore, anti-Aristotelian animus of Zwingli, Lelio Sozzini, Sebastian Franck, and so on.
Humanism included scholars such as Valla and Erasmus who in their systematic philological reconstruction of the New Testament from the linguistic and historical context of the original Greek attacked the Aristotelian logic and the syllogism of the theologians .
Bruegel was conversant with all this, belonging as he did to a circle of Erasmian Catholics and possibly to a mystical sect (the Family of Love), which was part of the Free Spirits who were able to combine mysticism (emphasizing the accessibility of God and the fatuous historic manifestation of God in Christ) and rationalism. Erasmus was influenced by the Brethren of the Common Life and shared their skepticism about scholarly speculation and the ceremonial manifestations of religion.
Bruegel absorbs this mysticism, but it is manifested as a rational statement about man’s mechanicality in the context of the flow of history. While this can be interpreted as a form of pessimism, we must remember, too, the other pa rt of the doctrine which stresses man’s potentiality, his ability to awaken through selfknowledge (the dismissal of ignorance) and the universalistic optimism he shared with Renaissance humanism.
This becomes clear as we view Bruegel’s depiction of Erasmian folly in his portrayal of The Vices a nd the Virtues, where the culprit is not the fatal carnal knowledge stipulated by the Churc h but rather, ignorance, lac k of knowledge as the chief sin. That there is a way out is testified to by the pastel vanishing points of landscapes which become the setting for the theater of man’s petty sins – the frolicking around in ‘Calvary … ‘; his hubris – poor pale Icarus, a nd Saul ; his collective ignorance, bad faith, cruelty, and selfdestructiveness – the army of ‘Saul ‘; and the ensnarement of him by the institutions he creates. The vanishing points are a reminder of man’s potentiality.
The depiction of folly naturally leads, through Breugel’s translation of the humanists’ juxtaposition of contradictory things, through the self-perpetuation and self-destructiveness of man’s vices to the depiction of the world as a stage, to the puppet theater analogy of society – the dramaturgical model.
Lest we vainly think that this is merely argument by analogy, we should again be reminded that Bruegel was very much influenced by Erasmus and the fool literature of Brandt.
Here Bruegel goes beyond philosophy, for he fleshes out the docta ignorantia with a graphic phenomenology of everyday life. Take his picture the ‘Netherlandish Proverbs .’ It is one of his encyclopedic pictures (others being ‘The Fight Between Carnival a nd Lent,’ and ‘Children’s Games’) or a Wimmelbild ‘teeming figure picture’ in which masses of people a reportrayed on a large panel.
Here we find more than a hundred proverbs detailing human folly. (Examples are: If the blind lead the blind both shall fall into the ditch; The pillar-biter -hypocritical piety -; The fool gets the trump card – fortune favors fools-; He bangs his head against the wall ; He carries baskets of light out into the sunshinecoals to Newcastle-; To have the devil for a confessor; An eel caught by the tail is not yet caught – don’t count your chickens until they hatch -; Anyone can see through an oak door if there’s a hole in it). As such these paintings are anthologies of folklore and custom. The paintings discussed earlier pull this material together into a more systematic dramaturgy by demonstrating the mechanisms by which the individual’ s commitments to social roles in his torical and social contexts compel him to take the world for granted.
The proverbs and folk-wisdom Bruegel implemented, enabled him to show man as a puppet inasmuch as the individual in his sleep has forfeited his autonomy to a higher will.
This skepticism allowed Bruegel to depict Christ as a wooden puppet on Judgement Day.
Where, then is the higher will – the ‘author and producer?‘
We return to the docta ignorantia. It is man’s sleep, and Nature; there is mankind’s salvation or his obliteration. In Nature we are saved or damned.
In a drawing called Spes “Hope’ Bruegel constructs an iconography of nature. The symbols of a ship and a caged bird are contrasted with a prison tower, a boat landing, and city wall. The hopes of the soul (the ship and caged bird) are opposed to the results of human reason and ingenuity offering a haven against nature. This security , however, is only won by man cooperating with Nature as in the peasant doing his daily work, or ships moving out to sea; otherwise man becomes humus for Great Nature.
Thus, there is the possibility of freedom if man can work with his fellow man and be attentive to him, if he can prod himself awake and out of the prideful undertakings of other men making him herdlike, and if he can avoid the drug of hypocrisy. In short, man must become self-reliant.
Bruegel’s emphasis on genre (he never painted altar panels), his love of the common ma n (he was derisively called ‘Peasant Bruegel’), and his attempt to view the world with simultaneity and impartiality, led him to the understanding of the fictions men live by. He demystified the grandeur of events and used the classic s and the bible to demonstrate their analogy to the present.
In doing so , he freed the present of its uniqueness by showing the recurrence of the human drama as it unfolded. Thus, the present is rendered specious by eternal recurrence or the past repeating itself with but minor changes . Nonetheless, the actors move through their paces mechanically. He offers us actors an opening in the door to wakefulness by demonstrating the connections between the scenarios of nature, society , power, and the self.