The Peasant and Nest Robber

Although completely different in size and make-up from the Peasant Wedding Banquet and Peasant Dance, Bruegel painted a third peasant scene in 1568, the Peasant and Nest Robber (fig. 23).350 A monumental peasant who faces the viewer and strides forward is depicted in the center. With his left arm he points upward toward another figure who dangles from the branch of a tree while reaching to grab the contents of a bird’s nest. Although his legs are wrapped around the tree trunk, his falling hat hints at the risk he is taking, possibly even foreshadowing what is about to happen to the boy himself. With a smile on his face, the central peasant stares out at the viewer. He does not realize that he has reached the edge of a river bank and his next step will send him plunging into the barely visible water in the foreground; a danger that is also difficult to see for the viewer. On the left of the painting, a cluster of trees block our view, while, on the right, a golden landscape shows a body of water that leads to a farm including two barns, horses, chickens and at least five workers and children. Jürgen Müller offers a sensitive visual analysis of this painting that emphasizes its “instantaneousness.”351 The peasant’s gesture of pointing, his movement forward, as well as the hat falling in mid-air are all elements that highlight the instantaneous, or as I would call it, “in-between-ness,” of the scene. Bruegel has depicted the narrative at its climax or turning point; while at this moment the central peasant feels safe and superior, concerned with pointing out to the viewer the action in the tree, with his next step he will find himself in the water. Bruegel emphasizes the “in-between-ness” of this very moment—the conflation of what is happening and what is about to happen—
350 See Stridbeck, Bruegelstudien (1977), 276; Jürgen Müller, Das Paradox als Bildform, (1999), 82-89. For a general study of this painting, see Thomas Noll, “Pieter Bruegel d.Ä.: der Bauer, der Vogeldieb und die Imker,” Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, vol. 50 (1999), 65-106. 351 Müller, Das Paradox als Bildform (1999), 85.
by what Müller describes as a visual trick.352 If one disconnects the upper body of the peasant from his lower half and views his legs in relation to the ground where he is standing, it becomes apparent that they are depicted as if from a bird’s eye perspective. If we were to imagine a torso connected to these legs, it would be leaning forward in the space of the viewer—not about to fall into the water, but in the process of falling. However, the torso Bruegel has painted is more upright, on the same level of the viewer. The effect of this one body, which takes up the entire center of the painting, being portrayed from two different perspectives is a split visual experience. Initially, the prominent gesture of the central farmer draws the viewer’s attention; as a result, the man’s torso defines a stable, parallel spatial relationship with the viewer. Following the direction of his accusatory, pointing finger, the viewer sees a young man pilfering a bird’s nest. While this perilous act might produce a sense of agitation, the volatility of the instant is not revealed until the viewer tracks the path of the falling hat downward and focuses on the bottom half of the painting, simultaneously seeing the water in the foreground and the bottom half of the peasant whose legs redefine the moment by indicating that he has already begun to fall. Tracing the sliver of water to the right, around the painting’s edge, we see that what at first sight seemed to be an unthreatening, shallow creek is connected to, and therefore is representative of, a much larger, deeper body of water. This process of viewing facilitated by the painting replicates the experience of the central peasant; as Kavaler explains, “The viewer meets the farmer’s gaze, glances to the tree and, presumably like the farmer himself, only afterwards discovers the water that runs along the bottom of the panel.”353 Bruegel depicts an instantaneous moment but portrays the body of the central peasant so as to indicate or inspire, even thematize, the present and future; in one figure he conflates what is occurring with what is yet to come.354 But it is exactly this
352 Ibid. 353 Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 251. 354 Bruegel represents a similar moment of instantaneousness, or “in-between-ness,” in his painting of the Conversion of Saul (1567). Having just fallen off his horse, Saul is in the process of falling to the ground. We know that this is the case, rather than having already fallen and now getting up, because Saul’s right leg is off the ground, in mid-air. If he were in the process of getting up, as his right shoulder might indicate, he would need his right leg on the ground for leverage. Because it will be important later on, I want to emphasize that in the Conversion of Saul, Bruegel has depicted an instantaneous moment in which a man is in the process of falling, a fall which marks the event of his spiritual conversion, becoming blind to the world so that he can see God.
figure who cannot see beyond the present moment, the threshold of what he considers to be his primary task. So consumed with his mission of pointing out the actions of someone else, the central peasant is not only blind to the future hazards he will encounter in his own path but it seems that he has also dropped his pack, which lies on the ground behind him. In the Praise of Folly, Erasmus has Dame Folly describe just such a person: “But if ever some mutual good will does arise amongst these austere characters it certainly can’t be stable and is unlikely to last long, seeing that they’re so captious and far keener-eyed to pick out their friends’ faults than the eagle or the Epidaurian snake. Of course, they’re blind to their own faults and simply don’t see the packs hanging from their backs.” And later, when describing philosophers: “They know nothing at all, yet they claim to know everything. Though ignorant even of themselves and sometimes not able to see the ditch or stone lying in their path, either because most of them are half-blind or because their minds are far away, they still boast that they can see ideas, universals, separate forms, prime matters, things which are all so insubstantial that I doubt if even Lynceus could perceive them (emphasis added).”355 The format and sentiment of the Peasant and Nest Robber can be compared to another painting by Bruegel from 1568, titled The Misanthrope (fig. 76) now in Naples.356 Set within a gray, black-bordered square, an expansive landscape is dominated by the tall figure robed in black who walks to the left with his hands clasped before him. The elderly man, whose white beard and slight profile are the only things visible from the hood he wears, is introspective, withdrawn into his own thoughts. The viewer even gets a sense of bitterness, communicated by the scowl on his face. Three small thorny objects lie on the ground in front of him which will no doubt cause the man anguish within his next few steps. Behind the monumental, dark figure, a smaller barefooted man wields a knife in order to cut the purse, or money bag, that was hidden beneath “the misanthrope’s” cloak. So consumed with his own thoughts or worries, the hooded figure does not notice the actions of the thief. With his lack of awareness of the stumbling blocks set before him and his bag being stolen behind him, similar to 355 Desiderus Erasmus, Praise of Folly and Letter to Maarten van Dorp. trans. Betty Radice, London and New York: Penguin Books (1993), 34, 85. 356 For detailed examination of this painting, see Margaret Sullivan, “Bruegel’s Misanthrope: Renaissance Art for a Humanist Audience,” Artibus et historiae, vol. 13, no. 26 (1992), 143-162.
the farmer in the Peasant and Nest Robber, this man’s self-absorption also resonates with the characteristics of folly just quoted from Erasmus. The thief is encased in a transparent orb surmounted by a cross. This motif appears as a detail in a previous painting by Bruegel, the Netherlandish Proverbs in Berlin (1559, fig. 77). In this context, the glass globe represents the “world” and illustrates the proverb, “one must stoop to get through the world.”357 In The Misanthrope, however, the man inside the globe performs quite a different act, robbery, and can be understood more broadly as representing the deceit and greed that characterize the world in general. To insure proper understanding of the image, two lines of text written in Dutch were added to the painting later: “Om dat de werelt is soe ongetru, Daer om gha ic in den ru” (because the world is so deceitful, I go in mourning). A print after the painting also includes a French version of the same lines. Despite the fact that the text is not contemporary with Bruegel, they nevertheless are consistent with the impression created by the old man and can offer an indication for how the image could have been understood by Bruegel’s viewers. In a similar way, George Hulin de Loo has speculated that Bruegel’s Peasant and Nest Robber should be related to a text, a vernacular proverb about the value of the active life over the passive one.358 Bruegel’s Beekeepers (1568, fig. 78), a drawing made in the same year, depicts a figure in a tree similar to the one in the Nest Robber and bears a text in the lower left corner that reads: “dye den nest Weet dye Weeten / dyen Roft dy heefen.” In English, it would best be translated as: “He who knows of the nest has the knowledge; he who robs it has it.”359 Based on the similar motifs, Huilin de Loo concludes that in the painting the boy in the tree “has” while the peasant about to step in the water simply “knows” and will soon disappear. While the Peasant and Nest Robber can be compared to the format and sentiment of The Misanthrope, similar to the Peasant Wedding Banquet and Peasant Dance, there is much more to be said about the painting regarding the mediation, or in this case translation, of formal and stylistic elements traditionally found in history painting for a representation of local rustic life. Like the previous two pictures, the 357 Ibid. See also Meadow, Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs (2002), 41. 358 Van Bastelaer and Hulin de Loo, Peter Bruegel l’Ancien (1907). See also Kjell Boström, “Das Sprichwort vom Vogelnest,” Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, vol. 18 (1949), 77-98. 359 Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 234.
recognition of these visual elements would have inspired reflection among Bruegel’s contemporary viewers not only about art per se but also regarding possible thematic connections between the subject of the painting and the sources he references, providing impetus for yet another level of conversation and interpretation. In addition to this painting being a detailed, complex representation of a farmer in his rustic surroundings, possibly even an illustration of self-righteous blindness described by Erasmus, scholars such as Carl Stridbeck and Müller have also commented on the formal and stylistic elements of the picture. For example, the pose and stocky body of the central figure has been connected to a number of possible Italian sources, including two figures from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: the Christ figure in the Last Judgment, with his short but sturdy legs, and the putto beneath the Erythraean Sibyl on the ceiling (fig. 24). However, an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi of St. John in the wilderness provides an almost exact visual precedent for the way Bruegel constructs his central figure, both in pose and posture (fig. 26). Situated between two trees, the lone Baptist is in mid-step (both heels are off the ground) and gestures across his chest; his pointing hand intersects with his staff which bears a cross at its end. In contrast to Bruegel’s peasant, however, the body of this figure is constructed from a single, consistent perspective that is parallel to the viewer. The farmer’s pointing gesture has also been associated with a painting of John the Baptist by Leonardo, now in the Louvre (fig. 25).360 Upon closer observation, the two figures by Bruegel and Leonardo also share a strikingly similar facial structure and expression—they both have widely separated eyes, elongated noses and faint smiles— as well as contrapposto positioning. The facial expression, which only hints at a grin, illustrates not so much an emotion of joy, as it does one of fulfillment.361 According to scripture, the Baptist proclaims, “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been
360 See Tolnay, “Bruegel et l’Italie” (1951), 121-130; Müller, Das Paradox als Bildform (1999), 83; Vinken and Schlüter, “Pieter Bruegels Nestrover” (1996), 54-79. 361 The so-called “mysterious smile” was much copied by Leonardo’s students. On its peculiarity and popularity, see Raymond S. Stites, The Sublimations of Leonardo (1970), 357; Michael Kwakkelstein, Leonardo da Vinci as a Physiognomist: Theory and Drawing, Leiden: Primavera Press, 1994; Ritchie Calder, “Anatomy of the Gioconda Smile,” in Leonardo and the Age of the Eye, London: Heinemann (1970), 141-163; Flavio Caroli, Leonardo: Studi de fisiognomica, Milan: 1991. Other examples include Leda and Virgin and Child and St. Anne.
fulfilled.”362 Bruegel presents a comparable face slightly tilted to the right bearing a contented, similarly fish-eyed gaze with a closed mouth upturned at the ends. However, unlike the Baptist’s spiritual contentment, it seems that the peasant’s grin has more to do with a fulfillment that is false; his self-righteous fixation with the ambitious man in the tree has blinded him to the hazards in his own path. Although his widely separated eyes have been described as characteristic of crude peasant features, when coupled with his long nose and faint smile and seen in comparison to the face of Leonardo’s Baptist, the visual similarities are compelling.363 Leonardo was the first Italian artist whose influence was felt in the North, as can be observed in the art of Quentin Massys, Jan Massys and Joos van Cleve.364 It is generally agreed that the Baptist painting should be dated ca. 1513-1516, the final stage of Leonardo’s career when he moved from Rome to Cloux (near Amboise), France to work in the court of King Francis I. The popularity of his representation of the saint is illustrated in the number of his pupils who copied it; their work appears in various collections.365 One such painting, which was probably a collaboration between Leonardo and a pupil, is titled Baptist/Bacchus, also dated ca. 1513-1516 and now in the Louvre (fig. 27). In terms of its overall composition, including the facial expression and gesture of the central figure, it bears an even closer resemblance to Bruegel’s Peasant and Nest Robber.366 Although there are vast differences between the content of the collaborative painting from Leonardo’s design and Bruegel’s picture—religious subject versus peasant scene—they also share certain iconographic motifs. In the design after Leonardo, John the Baptist holds a staff with his left hand and points with his index
362 John 3: 29. 363 Gibson describes his expression as vacuous, Bruegel (1985), 188; Kavaler explains that he, “lacks fashionably refined features and his eyes may be set rather far apart;” Kavaler, Pieter Bruegel (1999), 252. 364 See Larry Silver, The Paintings of Quintin Massys, Oxford: Phaidon, 1984; John Oliver Hand, Joos van Cleve: The Complete Paintings, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. On the use of Leonardo’s compositions in Germany and the Netherlands as early as the 1520’s, see Cécile Scailliérez, “Joos van Cleve e Genova,” Pittura fiamminga in Liguria, Milano: Cinsello Balsamo (1997), 111-125. 365 Edoardo Villata, “Forse il più importante di tutti i quadri:” elementi per la fortuna critica del ‘San Giovanni Battista’ di Leonardo,” Raccolta Vinciana, vol. 30 (2003), 85-132; C. Pedretti, Leonardo (1973), 166. For a sensitive study on Leonardo’s painting and particular changes that are made in copies, see Klaus Krüger, Das Bild als Schleier des Unsichtbaren. Ästhetische Illusion in der Kunst der frühen Neuzeit in Italien, München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag (2001), 101-106, 128-131. 366 See n. 56 for literature addressing the Baptist/Bacchus painting.
finger downward toward what is most likely the river Jordan continued from the background. The plants and flowers are given special attention, as is usually the case in contemporaneous depictions of the solitary Baptist in the wilderness, especially the eclectic herb garden on the left side. For example, a similar cluster of vegetation can be found next to a river bank in the foreground of a painting of St. John in the Wilderness by Pintoricchio (fig. 28). The plants in Leonardo’s painting can be traced to various botanical studies drawn by the artist. William Emboden argues that the abundant vegetation in the painting was probably designed by Leonardo, if not executed by him, and it contains some iconographic religious elements appropriate to St. John; the columbine in the foreground expresses Christian hope of redemption to be achieved through Christ and the sacrament of Baptism.367 His right arm extends across his chest gesturing toward what would have been, in the original version, the cross at the end of his staff, visually referencing his biblical prophecy of Christ’s coming, “there is one that cometh after me.”368 The history of images depicting John the Baptist from the fourteenth century onward, both in Italy and the North, reveal this gesture upward to be one of his attributes.369 Further, the angle of John’s staff, and its now painted-out cross, is extended in the background by the solitary tree stump crowned with jagged splinters. The stump or, even better, dead tree resting on the overhang of the cliff, is an additional standard iconographic motif in images of the Baptist and recalls the verses in which he instructs the Pharisees and Suddacees, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” and later, “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”370 For example, situated in a niche in an inner room of the cathedral in Reims, a statue of John shows the saint pointing across his chest with his left hand and, with his right, pointing downward toward a dead tree with an axe at its trunk (fig. 80).371 To the left of the central figure, an atmospheric golden landscape unfolds in the
367 See William Emboden, Leonardo Da Vinci on Plants and Gardens, Portland: Dioscorides Press (1987), 137. 368 Matthew 3: 11. 369 See Friedrich-August v. Metzsch, Johannes der Täufer: Seine Geschichte und seine Darstellung in der Kunst, München: Callwey, 1989. 370 Matthew 3: 8-10. 371 For more on this attribute, see Metzsch, Johannes der Täufer (1989).
distance and is ornamented with a deer, horse and large body of water, most likely the river Jordan. Bruegel’s Peasant and Nest Robber assumes a very similar composition, but in reverse—the cluster of trees is now on the left and open landscape with animals, farm and body of water on the right.372 Though not seated like the Baptist from Leonardo’s studio, a central figure strides directly toward the viewer. As previously mentioned, the forceful, articulated pose of the farmer’s body is painted in an Italianate style, especially in comparison to the stumpy, almost shapeless, manner with which peasant figures were previously depicted in the North.373 With his left arm, the peasant gestures upward and across his chest. In comparison to the figure in the Baptist/Bacchus painting who points to the cross on his staff which directs the viewer’s gaze toward a dead tree stump, a symbol calling attention to one’s moral actions, the central figure in Bruegel’s picture points his finger toward the nest robber who seems to be safely fastened to the tree. But, the central figure also carries a staff that points in the direction of the hat that once was settled securely on the youth’s head but now is falling to the ground, hinting at the risk—in line with the central peasant himself—that a fall might be in this boy’s future as well. As in the Baptist/Bacchus picture, an eclectic assortment of plants and flowers are gathered at the bank of the river to the left of the central peasant figure in the foreground. The bouquet of vegetation—fern, blue iris, bramble bush, and herbs— would not have naturally grown together in such a marshy area.374 Each plant carries iconographic undertones that could have been familiar to Bruegel’s sixteenth-century viewer. The most obvious example is the blue iris (iris germanica) which appears in a painting by Bruegel made in the same year, The Blind Leading the Blind (fig. 81), now in Naples. Like The Misanthrope, this painting on canvas can be related to a text and, therefore, the meaning determined, at least on the surface, with a little more certainty. In Luke 6:39, Jesus asks: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a ditch?” The passage addresses the dangers of false prophecy, as well as the value of spiritual understanding over earthly sight. In the painting, two blind men fall into a 372 The reversal of Bruegel’s composition in comparison to Leonardo’s might indicate that Bruegel saw a reproduction of this painting in print. 373 See Raupp, Bauernsatiren (1986). 374 Vinken and Schlüter, “Pieter Bruegels Nestrover” (1996), 62.
ditch, while four others behind them follow in their path. On the water’s edge, directly located above the two men already falling, appears an iris. The iris is prominently located next to a representation of blindness; having followed a blind leader, the men have themselves become blind. While Pierre Vinken and Lucy Schlüter argue that the iris is a general symbol for transience or mortality, others argue that it refers to Mary’s compassion (parallel to its primary meaning in religious painting) or, more precisely, to Simeon’s foretelling of her future suffering because of the death of her son.375 This sense of foreboding is brought out in a painting by Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482) of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (fig. 82). The two figures stand naked in Eden next to the tree of knowledge. The teeth marks in the apple held in Eve’s right hand indicate that she has already been convinced by the devil to taste the forbidden fruit. She now reaches upward to pluck an apple for Adam. In the center foreground, a high rising blue iris bloom covers her genitals. This moment represents the fall of humanity and the introduction of death into the world. While Eve’s wide-eyed gaze into empty space emphasizes her earthly sight, it also betrays her spiritual blindness; she is now under the spell of the devil and unable to see the consequences of her actions. While the iris in this context carries with it connotations of suffering and death, especially Christ’s passion, its location over Eve’s genitals also calls to mind the purity of Mary, the second eve, whose virgin birth gave life to Christ, the second Adam and atonement for humanity’s depravity. Like the irises in Hugo’s painting and The Blind Leading the Blind, in the Peasant and Nest Robber an iris is also located in the foreground next to a visual expression of blindness, the central peasant who is blind to the risks in his own path due to his self-righteous preoccupation with the hazardous behavior of another. Based on the similarities I have discussed between the compositional, iconographic and stylistic elements employed for diverse depictions of John the Baptist and Bruegel’s Peasant and Nest Robber, I would like to suggest that these resonances would have been recognized by Bruegel’s contemporary viewers and discussed as such. This is not only the case for specific stylistic or formal elements incorporated by Leonardo—such as the hand gesture, facial characteristics and overall composition of
375 Reindert Falkenburg, Joachim Patinir: het landschap als beeld van de levenspelgrimage, Nijmegen (1985), 41. See also M. Levi-d’Ancona, The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting, Florence (1977), 185-188.
the picture—but also for depictions of St. John in the wilderness more generally, such as the engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi. On the one hand, these references betoken Bruegel’s artistic awareness, an intimate conversation with artistic practice, both in Italy and the North, and the innovative spirit with which he mediates characteristics from history painting to cultivate his own vernacular style. On the other hand, the division of and play with the form and content of previous models is a rhetorical technique that remains consistent throughout his work, as I have discussed it in relation to the Peasant Wedding Banquet and Peasant Dance, and could have led to discussions among Bruegel’s contemporary viewers about possible insights the life of John the Baptist might offer for discussing potential interpretations of the panel, especially the importance of spiritual discernment in everyday life. Müller argues that the Peasant and Nest Robber should be seen within the context of Erasmian ironic philosophy, the most well-known example being his Praise of Folly, not only in regards to the iconography but also in terms of artistic style.376 A woodcut illustration from a chapter of Sebastian Brant’s Sottenschip shows a fool toppling from a tree with a bird’s nest in his hand (fig. 83). The text warns against trusting too much to fortune, since “He who climbs unwisely often falls hard,”377 and later “live soberly and moderately, not doing more by good fortune than is proper for one’s station.”378 Contrary to Brant, Müller argues, Bruegel transforms the meaning of the nest robber into positive; on Bruegel’s panel it is not the boy who is falling from the tree, or will fall, but the arrogant central peasant. The drama of the painting consists in the turning upside-down safety and danger. He who blindly thinks he is safe actually lives dangerously. Although Müller does not argue for one specific artistic quote, he asserts that the mixture of a lowly peasant subject with a generally Italian manner of painting traditionally deployed for depicting lofty historiae highlights the contradictory relationship between form and content, a contradiction that would have been understood as simultaneously ridiculing the central peasant and Italian style. 376 Jürgen Müller, Das Paradox (1999), 82-89. 377 Brant (1548), ch. 109, “Die climt onwijsselick valt dicwijl swaerlick.” As translated by E.H. Zeydel, New York: Columbia University Press, 1944. 378 Ibid. “Al eest dan dat ons fortune toe lacht wi en sullense niet te seer betrouwe[n] noch achter volge[n] / mer doen als dye wijse die in voor spoede he[m] wapent teghen wederspoet dat is leeft soberlic en [de] tamelijc niet doende na sijn gheluc mer na sine[n] staet en [de] toebehoorte.”
Vinken and Schlüter argue that the picture should be understood as a kind of memento mori, rather than adhering to a particular sixteenth-century adage as Hulin de Loo claims.379 According to the authors, the scene is an allegory concerning man’s mortality, a theme brought out by the paintings details. For example, they contend that theft and more specifically the act of robbing a bird’s nest were common metaphors for Death, and the bird itself served as a metaphor for the soul. However, Klaus Demus takes a different direction. Observing the importance of the vernacular translation of the Bible during the Reformation, he points out the close resemblance between the Netherlandish proverb (he who knows of the nest has the knowledge; he who robs it has it) and the words of John the Baptist in John 3: 29-30: “He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.”380 In my mind, while each of these observations touches upon several different ideas the painting raises, it is Müller’s theme of inversion that characterizes the way in which artistic and sacred ideas are mediated into a vernacular representation of everyday life. For a picture that depicts a farmer self-righteously consumed with pointing to a figure behind him, Bruegel has employed a style, composition and iconography that resonates with those used for John the Baptist, the prophet who was also obsessed with pointing to a man coming behind him. Only, in this case, his motivation is the exact opposite—complete self-denial. A peasant whose fixation leads to him being totally unaware of his (literal) place in the world, about to disappear into the water before him, is formally depicted in such a way that it would have awakened in the mind of the viewer associations with the religious figure who was well aware of his role as an “in-between,” to point to Christ, “he that cometh after me,” then immediately disappear into the background of the story, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”381 Whether out of humble or self-righteous motivations, both St. John and the central peasant are unable to see beyond the threshold of what they deem their place in the world, to point to who comes behind them. Whereas St. John is only
379 Vinken and Schlüter, “Pieter Bruegels Nestrover” (1996), 59-60. 380 Klaus Demus, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1999), 123. 381 John 3: 30. See also Lyckle de Vries, “Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus” (2003), where he argues that Bruegel takes texts directly from the Bible, Solomon speaking in Ecclesiastes, and presents them in the form of everyday life.
concerned with pointing out what at that moment is invisible, engendering in his audience a spiritual vision for Christ that insures future salvation, the central peasant’s obsession with pointing toward what is visible behind him is an indication of his worldly concerns and his inability to see his own impending doom to come. Similar to Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Banquet and Peasant Dance, the Peasant and Nest Robber is put together in such a way that the formal and stylistic elements beg for closer analysis and feed the analytical minds of its contemporary viewers. By imbricating the sacred and profane, Northern and Italian, art and literature, the image not only allows for different levels of interpretation, but constructs them. The picture is a visual discourse, if you will, that would have inspired a similar conversational mode as represented in the convivium tradition; an experience in which the beholder must parley and connect different voices speaking to one another: the beauty of nature represented and the artistic form in which it is shaped, a sacred story (and the iconographical tradition associated with it) and profane life (including the literary tradition that describes it). The recognition of Bruegel’s translation of a religious visual tradition for a painting of rural life calls on—indeed, is dependant on— various levels of viewer awareness—literary, religious and artistic—during the process of analysis. Central to the viewing experience Bruegel’s picture creates is the ability of the viewer to recognize subtle artistic, stylistic and/or iconographic references and to analyze and discuss them on multiple different levels. Such mixing and mingling of form and content may seem difficult for modern viewers to assimilate, but Bruegel’s educated sixteenth-century audience would have been trained in such a practice. It can be compared to a similar exercise in rhetorical pedagogy. According to Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540), students were required during the Renaissance to keep notebooks divided into form and content.382 By form is meant the design, structure or pattern of arranging literary elements (prose, drama or poetry). By content is meant the subject, meaning or significance. The practice of imitation, one aspect of their rhetorical education, required them to analyze form and content. They were asked to observe a model closely and then to copy the form but supply new
382 On the use of the notebook system as an adjunct to rhetorical practice and an aid to education, and therefore highly important for understanding the habits of mind of Bruegel’s contemporary viewers, see Meadow, Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs (2002), 85-97.
content; or to copy the content but supply a new form. Such imitations occurred on every level of speech and language, and forced students to assess what exactly a given form did to bring about a given meaning or effect.383 This educational device of deconstructing and reassembling form and content in varying contexts could have also defined, at least in part, the viewing habits of Bruegel’s educated audience, especially in the context of the convivium tradition as I have described it. Similar to the way in which dinner companions in the Poetic Feast recite poetry, analyze difficult terms, resolve problems of rhyme and meter and offer diverse readings of traditional manuscripts, paintings such as the Peasant and Nest Robber, Peasant Wedding Banquet and Peasant Dance, with their stylistic and iconographic references, would have inspired similar discussions on the way in which form and content interact within their visual grammar. This nuanced viewing involves an analysis of painting that takes place on a number of different levels and seeks to connect, or at least intertwine, heterogeneous concepts. Similar to the Peasant Wedding Banquet, the Peasant and Nest Robber mediates artful forms and iconography traditionally employed for a religious subject within a painting that, if taken at face value, seems to depict a rustic scene of a peasant, a subject indigenous to the North. The tension generated between form and content, sacred and profane creates an ambivalence that inspires more in-depth investigation on both artistic and religious grounds. Present reality and a biblical story, vernacular subject in a painterly style, are layered within the painting, encouraging viewers continuously to negotiate, question and discuss shifting perspectives about artistic standards as well as the translation and recognition of sacred stories in everyday life. In this shift in perspective, from sight to insight or from seeing to understanding, Bruegel’s treatment of previous visual vocabulary in new and innovative ways is crucial; his choice of visual concepts or pictorial motifs dynamically interacts with the viewer’s artistic and religious awareness. As with the Peasant Wedding Banquet, Bruegel’s inter-pictorial discourse not only mediates the religious narrative within everyday life, mixing the “sacred” with the “profane,” but
383 See Gideon O. Burton, “Silva Rhetoricae,” (January 31, 2007). Michel Jeanneret describes a similar process in the work of Montaigne, “The Renaissance and Its Ancients: Dismembering and Devouring,” Modern Language Notes, vol. 110.5 (1995), 1043-1053.
also combines previous visual tradition with his own emerging artistic practice. As a result, the viewers of this visual conversation have to follow the interplay of that mediation, shifting focus back and forth from the surface of the painting to the model it references. It goes without saying that such visual and intellectual agility requires time and patience, a slow extrication of meaning through prolonged meditation on the painting, and assigns a dynamic role to the viewer. The beholder, therefore, is asserted as the judge not only of proper response to the painted subjects, but also of creative innovation in relation to artistic practice. The result is both the cultivation of the mind of the viewer as well as Bruegel’s vernacular style.