Building on the visual conversations within this painting and the verbal dialogue inspired by it, I would like to turn now to another of Bruegel’s later peasant paintings that represents and inspires similar topics of discourse. Hanging next to the Peasant Wedding Banquet in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is the Peasant Dance, also made in 1568 (fig. 17). However unlikely, the similarity between their
288 For further discussions on the performative act of interpretation in Bruegel’s work, specifically as it entails pictorial discovery and a reenactment of the central theme locked into the subject of the painting, see Falkenburg, “Doorzien als esthetische ervaring (2005), 53-65; Meadow, “Bruegel’s Procession to Calvary” (1996); Walter Melion, Shaping the Netherlandish Canon (1991). See also Lyckle de Vries, “Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus: Ovid or Soloman,” Simiolus, vol. 30, no.1/2 (2003), 4-18, where he argues that Bruegel takes texts directly from the Bible, Solomon speaking in Ecclesiastes, and presents them in the form of an everyday life situation. 289 Erasmus, Enchiridion Militis Christiani. Trans. Charles Fantazzi. Oxford: University Press (1981), 65, (emphasis added). On the function of analogy in Erasmus’s works as a figure of rhetoric allowing the imagination to assist reason in constructing links between heterogeneous fields of study and thought, see Jean-Claude Margolin, “L’Analogie dans la Pensée d’Erasme,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, vol. 69 (1978), 25-50.
formal qualities, including an emphasis on monumental figures and complex compositions that lead the viewers gaze into depth, has led many scholars to see the paintings as pendants.290 The scene represents an annual village festival held on the feast day of the village patron saint; if the large red flag hanging from the building on the left is any indication, the festivities are dedicated to St. George. Dancing, drinking and music making illustrate the merry atmosphere. On the left, peasants sit at a table in front of an inn that is decorated with beer and food. They engage one another in a number of ways, either in an inebriated exchange or physical affection. The interaction between the three peasants at the table, all of whom extend their arms toward one another, is a motif taken from one of Bruegel’s earlier pictures, St. George Kermis (1561, fig. 22, 58). In this engraving after the artist’s design, three men are seated on the left side of the table situated in front of an inn and interact with one another in almost the exact same fashion. This is one example among many in which the artist takes up a small or marginal motif from a previous panoramic work and forms it into a more prominent element of a painting. Other examples include the Cripples, taken from the Battle Between Carnival and Lent, and the Blind Leading the Blind and Magpie on the Gallows, taken from the Netherlandish Proverbs.291 On the right side of the Peasant Dance, one couple strides into the scene from the right. Behind them in the middle ground, two couples glide hand in hand to the rhythm of the bagpiper; the musician’s expanded cheeks indicate the intensity of his tunes. The rough faces of all the figures, particularly the large man in the center and those seated around the table, reveal teeth or expressions that visually communicate something of the unrefined or primitive quality of the peasant dance.292 The emphasis on depicting figures in motion is striking. The prominent display of intertwined arms and legs of the dancers, constructed so as to lead the viewer’s gaze into depth, has led some scholars, such as Gibson and Sullivan, to liken the design to an Italian style of representing bacchanals.293 For example, the complex assembly of 290 See for example, Raupp, Bauernsatiren (1986) and Gibson, Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Laughter (2006). 291 On Bruegel’s habit of reproducing his own work in subsequent paintings, see Meadow, “Bruegel’s Procession to Calvary” (1996) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs (2002). 292 Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 185; on facial expressions, also see Sullivan, Bruegel’s Peasants (1994). 293 Sullivan, Bruegel’s Peasants (1994); Gibson, Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Laughter (2006), 103.
the figures on the right leads the beholder into depth through a constellation of arms and legs; the couple’s raised clasped hands in the middle ground form an arch that functions to both frame the recessional space below it as well as to echo and point toward the arches of the church in the background. To the left of the central peasant dressed in black in the foreground, a second recessional corridor invites the viewer into the fictive space of the painting (fig. 59). Beginning with the profile of the central figure, a cascade of subsequent faces, first that of a peasant woman then an urbanite man, leads to a smiling jester in the distance. Additionally, the viewer’s gaze is attracted in this direction by the arms and feet of a second couple in the middle ground. In mid-step, the clasped hands of this pair are also raised while each figure kicks up a leg. The construction of the man in particular reveals that his function is as much to guide the gaze as a representation of an actual peasant dancing. His arms are completely straight, not bending with his motion, and his hat is awkwardly situated on the side of his head covering his face; if the scene were put into motion, no doubt it would immediately fall to the ground. Because his face is obstructed, the viewer’s sight immediately extends beyond the figure and enters the small corridor framed by his arms and the woman’s leg, which also leads to the fool with his left hand raised, standing next to a frowning man. We can see similar visual concepts in Titian’s The Andrians (fig. 18), a painting I offered in Chapter One as a comparison, in which a crowd of mythological figures are prominently displayed across the foreground and lead the viewer’s gaze into the distance. Such formal constructions in which bodies are used to construct the narrative of the picture were also common among Northern artists influenced by Italian style— such as Michel Coxie, Maarten van Heemskerck, and Frans Floris—pictures that were much more readily accessible to Bruegel. It is commonly observed that paintings such as Heemskerck’s Triumph of Bacchus (fig. 19), a picture that I will discuss in greater detail in Chapter Four, functioned as a stage on which to show off the artistic skill and knowledge he had acquired during his travels in Italy.294 Multiple, intertwined figures
294 For general discussions of Heemskerck’s Triumph of Bacchus, see Ilja M. Veldman, Maarten van Heemskerck and Dutch Humanism (1977) and “Maarten van Heemskerck en Italië,” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, vol. 44 (1993), 125-142; R. Grosshans, Maerten van Heemskerck: Die Gemälde, Berlin, 1980; J.C. Harrison, The Paintings of Maerten van Heemskerck: A Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols, Ann Arbor, MI, 1987.
are depicted in a frieze-like manner across the foreground. On the right, the drunken Bacchus sits on his carriage, attended to by multiple satyrs. Music-makers dance before him. The festive figures reach, run, twist and tumble; their naked, muscular bodies resonate with an Italianate mode, such as that of Michelangelo. Bacchus’s train creeps to the left, toward a rusticated antique archway, then winds into the distant background toward his temple of worship. Frans Floris was also one of the most important painters of mythological subjects in sixteenth-century Flanders. Numerous intertwined figures populate his festive depiction of the Banquet of the Gods (ca. 1556-68, fig. 20).295 The figure of Saturn, the god of time, sits in the center with his back to the viewer, watching the pleasures of the passionate group while they express their affectionate desires. The monumental figure acts as a visual obstruction which encourages the viewer to look beyond him, to see what he sees. The figures are seated around a T-shaped table which recedes into the distance toward an opening outside the garden. Other than a few oysters and a bowl of fruit, the table is noticeably empty. The gods seem to be more interested in feasting on each other than the meager food scattered around them; an activity which equally consumes the mind of the viewer. Although Bruegel’s painting represents a native village festival, it is no less a stage on which viewers could have appreciated the artist’s creative abilities, not just in depicting a detailed image of a rustic religious holiday but also in connecting bodies and their appendages in such a way that the narrative is clearly communicated and the gaze is guided through the picture. As I briefly discussed, compared to the artist’s earlier panoramic depictions of peasant kermissen, the Peasant Dance takes on a completely different perspective. For example, both the Kermis at Hoboken and St. George Kermis provide a bird’s-eye view from which to observe the numerous characters and their activities. The ground planes are tilted upward so that details in the background are clear, for example, the stage in the right background of the St. George Kermis where a play is in progress. Earlier Netherlandish paintings of village fairs tend to adopt something of this sweeping view.
295 For a general discussion of this painting, see Van de Velde, Frans Floris (1975).
The staging of the Peasant Dance provides an entrance for the viewer that is on the same level as the cast of characters. The architectural design is such that the buildings recede into depth roughly following one-point perspective. Rather than looking down on all the festivities simultaneously, the viewer must navigate spaces created by the compositional construction, first encountering the festive foreground activities then looking through the figures toward details in the background, such as a church and fool, that seem to offer some kind of marginal commentary. As I stated in Chapter One, Margaret Sullivan has connected Bruegel’s peasant scene with Serlio’s setting for satire (fig. 21).296 This particular design was one of three settings proposed by Serlio which corresponded to the three modes of classical drama: tragedy, comedy and satire. Similar to Bruegel’s design, this country setting offers a ground plane level with that of the viewer with a single dirt path leading into the distance. Two rows of receding buildings line the path. Keith Moxey, among others, argues that artists were familiar with the treatise’s illustrations of the ancient settings for drama.297 For example, he has shown that two of Bruegel’s contemporaries, Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer, borrowed extensively from Serlio’s illustrations for market scenes and domestic interiors. Sullivan offers Serlio’s illustration to show that the homes of satyrs as they appear in ancient drama resemble a peasant village. Consequently, she rather unconvincingly argues that Bruegel’s contemporary viewers would have interpreted his peasants as modern versions of the wild, salacious satyrs of antiquity and, therefore, functioned as didactic moral exempla.298 However, as Falkenburg has observed in the work of Pieter Aertsen, the juxtaposition of classical settings or stately figural compositions with peasant figures has more to do with appealing to a discourse on art and artifice than with offering a hermeneutic for interpreting the behaviour illustrated. By “counter-imaging” standards of art defined in Italy or antiquity with peasant subjects, a practice unheard of in the Netherlands, Aertsen creates a contradictio in picturis that questions the boundaries of
296 Sullivan, Bruegel’s Peasants (1994), 19. 297 Moxey, Pieter Aertsen, Joachim Beuckelaer, and the Rise of Secular Painting (1977), 73-89; see also Th.H. Lunsingh Scheurleer, “Pieter Aertsen en Joachim Beuckelaer en hun ontleeningen aan Serlio’s architectuurprenten,” Oud Holland 62 (1947), 123-134; Falkenburg, “Pieter Aertsen’s Kitchen Maid in Brussels” (2004). 298 Sullivan, Bruegel’s Peasants (1994), 18-19.
art itself.299 Likewise, similar to the way in which Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Banquet incorporates pictorial references from a biblical story and visual concepts from history painting, in the following I will show how the composition of the Peasant Dance resonates with formal characteristics previously employed for depictions of bacchanalia. In addition to taking up the “natural life of Brabant,” Bruegel constructs a complex formal composition incorporating Italianate visual concepts, increasingly taken up by Northern artists in the mid-sixteenth century, in order to push the pictorial possibilities for his vernacular style.300 Furthermore, similar to my discussion of the Peasant Wedding Banquet, the specific formal characteristics incorporated are by no means separated from the content of the image. Rather, by examining the processes of viewing inspired by the bacchanalia of Floris and Heemskerck in relation to the Peasant Dance, I will argue that instead of functioning solely as moral instruction, pointing out the improper behavior of the carefree peasant, the mechanics and syntax of Bruegel’s painting leads, even compels, the viewer to visually negotiate specific formal and iconographic aspects of the picture in such a way that the performance of viewing itself re-enacts the delicate balancing act that is locked into the subject of the picture—the celebration of a religious holiday. Pleasure and enjoyment in the pagan world are prominently displayed in Heemskerck’s Triumph of Bacchus (fig. 19). The Greek god Dionysus, later adopted by the Romans as Bacchus, was the god of wine and of mystic ecstasy. Wine, music and floral arrangements are in abundance and the revelry is uninhibited. The painting resembles antique sarcophagi which often depicted bacchic processions, objects Heemskerck could have seen during his visit to Rome. However, as Ilja Veldman has pointed out, Heemskerck adds a motif in the center foreground which casts a tone of accountability on the festive scene.301 A smiling putto disrupts the illusion of the painted surface by looking directly at the viewer and angling a mirror to reveal the reflection of a drunken sartyr’s behind, as well as the excrement flowing from it. As 299 See Falkenburg, “Pieter Aertsens Alter Marktverkäufer” (2006). 300 We should remember here Meadow’s discussion of the slippage between vernacular and classical proverbs, proverbs in which “carefully garnered classical Latin is translated in the vernacular to add to the repertoire of available figures for enriching plays or poems, or everyday conversation.” Meadow, Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs (2002), 79. 301 Ilja Veldman, “Elements of continuity: a finger raised in warning,” Simiolus vol. 20, no.2/3 (1990-1), 125-141.
the wine pouring from the vase next to him might indicate, the sorry state of the satyr is a result of wine flowing too freely. The action and gaze of the putto directly address the viewer, connecting him to the world of the image. Veldman has shown that this particular emphasis on faeces—a motif unknown in classical or Italian versions of the theme—is a sign that the usual meaning of such an image, pleasure in an untroubled pagan world, has changed. She argues that Heemskerck depicts a classical theme in an Italianate style but gives it a Netherlandish moral twist. Veldman goes on to state that the now illegible inscription on the cartellino could have resembled the inscription on the engraving of Cornelis Bos (1506-1563) reproducing Heemskerck’s composition (1543, fig. 60). The poem begins with the warning: “He who is led by an unbridled love for the wine-god Lyaeus looks more like a monster than a human being.”302 If this text correctly communicates the sentiment of the lost inscription on Heemskerck’s painting, it indicates that the mirror reflection displayed by the putto could be that of the viewer as much as a reflective commentary on what is viewed. Even if Heemskerck’s contemporary viewer would not have associated such a moralizing text with the artist’s visual amendment, the marginal motif of the putto and mirror reflection nevertheless speak to the need for self-awareness and instill a tone of accountability. While there is much to be enjoyed about the painting, both the skill with which it is painted and its festive subject, the motif reminds viewers of the balance between pleasure and self-control; a measure of behavior that would have been well-known among Heemskerck’s educated observers, as I have shown in my discussion of manners prescribed in the convivium tradition.303 For example, for the Ancients, while wine brought pleasure and creativity to a banquet, learned discussion was equally important.304 The character Eusebius also advocates such a balance in Erasmus’s “Godly Feast.” During a discussion about the effects and appropriateness of drinking wine, Eusebius brings out his Bible to read the sixth chapter of first Corinthians: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient; all things
302 Ibid., 133. “Immodico quisquis sectatur amore Lyaeum/ Non homini similes, sed mage monstro hominis.” 303 On humanism and behavior, see Ilja Veldman, Maarten van Heemskerck and Dutch Humanism (1977). 304 Jeanneret, A Feast of Words (1991), 33
are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”305 While enjoyment of food and drink tempered by moderation is an issue, the context of this statement is Paul’s admonition that the body is connected to Christ and anyone united with the Lord will glorify him in all that he does. An engraving by Jan Sadelar (1550-1608), titled As the Days of Noe Were, reproduces a drawing by Dirck Barendsz (1534-1592) dating probably from ca. 1570 (fig. 61).306 The image foregrounds a group of nude figures who are depicted in an Italianate style and gathered around a table enjoying food, drink and each other’s company. As Veldman has pointed out, it seems at first sight that the occasion is being celebrated in a light-hearted festive manner.307 However, the left side of the picture opens up to reveal a landscape and a body of water in the distance. While the atmosphere is merry and calm in the foreground, in the background Noah’s ark bobs in the water under pouring rain and threatening clouds. In this picture, Barendsz adds a biblical motif in the margin of a classical setting of the feast of the gods depicted in an Italianate style.308 While the pleasure of the meal is prominently portrayed in the foreground, the viewer’s recognition of Noah’s ark in the background implicates the indulgent actions of the figures as the cause of God’s wrath in the form of the flood. Again, the moralizing motif pricks the viewer’s awareness and reminds him of the importance of balancing enjoyment and self-control. Floris’s painting of the Feast of the Gods (fig. 20) argues for a similar sense of equilibrium and self-awareness. Fiona Healy explains that while Mars, the god of war, is occupied by a passionate embrace with Venus, Saturn, the god of time, watches his fellow Olympians indulge their amorous desires with what is, one feels, increasing indignation.309 At the far end of the table, Amor is being honored, while the three fates to his left illustrate the theme, and consequences, of the transience of time. In the distance, a harpy reiterates the notion of time; the monster can be seen approaching,
305 Erasmus, Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 39 (1997), 189. 306 For a general discussion of this print, see J.P. Filedt Kok, et al (eds.), Kunst voor de beeldenstorm, Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum (1986), 417. 307 Veldman, “Elements of Continuity” (1990-1), 133. 308 Ibid. 309 Fiona Healy, “Bedrooms and Banquets: Mythology in Sixteenth-Century Flemish Painting,” in Hans Vlieghe, et al (eds.) Concept, Design and Execution in Flemish Painting (1550-1700), Turnhout: Brepols Publishers (2000), 88.
bringing with her doom and destruction. Healy argues that the essence of the picture is found in the two playful putti, one of whom vehemently tugs at Saturn’s scythe while the other dons Mars’s discarded armor. Their seemingly innocent behaviour is to be read as symbolic for the sweep of Saturn’s implement which will end the Golden Age and the resulting inevitability of war.310 The abundance on display can only occur during a time of peace, which, if these putti are any indication, is about to come to an end. As a significant painter of mythology during this period, Floris’s depiction of the delicate equilibrium that exists among the gods is discussed by Healy as a metaphor for the uncertainty of the political situation in the Netherlands at the end of the 1560’s. For all its apparent revelry, the painting masks a very serious and topical subject. Through the composition of the painting, the viewer is led to navigate both the foreground and background and to balance abundant pleasure and love, on the one hand, and the transience of time and impending doom, on the other. The putto in the bottom right corner, who wears the ominous helmet of Mars, peers out of the painting and functions to implicate the space of the viewer, a place and time that could learn from such a call for equilibrium. Similarly, merriness is showcased in the foreground of Bruegel’s Peasant Kermis where villagers delight in the physical pleasures of festivity and children dance to the sound of the bagpipe. Although the left side of the painting illustrates more overt abandonment in the revelry—drunken stupor, affectionate kisses, public exposure—this section is quarantined by the compositional boundary created by the angle of the bagpiper’s drones coupled with the musician’s arm and extended leg. The rest of the painting is dedicated to dancing. However, the complex assembly of the dancing figures on the right leads the beholder into depth through a constellation of arms and legs; the couple’s raised clasped hands in the middle ground form an arch that echoes and points toward the arches of the church that sits so prominent on the horizon line in the background. The visual pointer reminds the viewer that the festivities on display are in honor of a religious holiday. The flag hanging from the building on the left is traditionally a visual indicator for the occassion of these types of rustic revelries; its symbol reveals that the kermis is dedicated to Saint George.
Bruegel’s St. George Kermis includes a banner hanging from an inn bearing the figure of the saint, along with the motto, “Let the peasants hold their kermis” (fig. 62). The motto also appears on an earlier representation of a peasant kermis by Pieter van der Borcht, but is prefaced with lines that are more overtly condemning: “The drunkards delight in such festivals: fighting and brawling and drinking themselves drunk like beasts—going to the kermisses, be it man or woman. Therefore, let the peasants hold their kermis.”311 Margaret Carroll argues that because Bruegel only includes the last line of these verses in his depiction, he leaves the commentary more ambiguous and, thus, the picture should be understood as supportive of the festive tradition rather than derogatory.312 Regardless of whether or not this is the case, the motto is representative of the tenuous status of church holidays in peasant villages during this period. On the one hand, various examples from contemporary literature convey a reputation of the peasant as overindulging in the festivities and ignoring the religious subject they were supposed to be venerating. The Kermis at Hoboken carries a quatrain that follows the first two lines on van der Borcht’s print, then adds: “They insist on holding their kermisses, even though they have to fast and die of the cold.”313 Civil and church authorities alike often tried to limit or suppress the festival day.314 Luther criticized and sought to moderate church holiday festivals as early as 1520. In his letter to The Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther argues: All festivals should be abolished and Sunday alone retained. If it be desired, however, to retain the festivals of our lady and of the major saints, they should be transferred to Sunday, or observed only by an early morning mass after which all the rest of the day should be a working day. Here is the reason: since the feast days are abused by the drinking, gambling, loafing and all manner of sin, we anger God more on holidays than we do on other days. Things are so topsyturvy that holidays are not holy but working days are…Above all, we
311 “De dronckaerts verblijen hun in sulcken feesten / Kijven en vichten en dronckendrincken als beesten / Te kermissen te ghaenne tsy mans oft vrouwen / Daeromme laet de boeren haer kermises houwen.” As translated by Raupp, Baurensatiren (1986), 245-247. 312 Carroll, “Peasant Festivity and Political Identity” (1987). 313 “Sij moeten die kermissen onderhouwen / Al souwen sij vasten en sterven van kauwen.” As translated by Kavaler (1999), 187-189. 314 Keith Moxey, “Sebald Beham Church Anniversary Holidays and Sixteenth Century Woodcut: Festive Peasants as Instruments of Repressive Humor,” Simiolus, vol. 12, no. 2-3 (1982), 107-130; see also Allison Stewart, “The First ‘Peasant Festivals’: Eleven Woodcuts Produced in Reformation Nuremberg by Barthel and Sebald Beham and Erhard Schön, ca. 1524 to 1535.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University (1986), 109-120.
ought to abolish church anniversary celebrations outright, since they have become nothing but taverns, fairs, and gambling places and only increase the dishonoring of God.315
The 1531 edict of Charles V, aimed to restrain excess, was reprinted in 1559 when Margaret of Parma became governor of the Netherlands and wanted to reinforce it: Consequently, as a remedy to the disorderly drinking bouts and drunkenness which are occurring in our country in various inns, taverns, and hostelries, held in secluded places away from towns, market towns, and villages, away from the public roads and other places, [disorder is also occurring] in fairs and kermisses, and as a remedy to the brawls, murders, and other problems that result, we decree and order that […] the said fairs and kermises shall last but one day, with the threat of a fine of 15 Carolus gilders to be paid by any and all of those who hold said fairs and kermises beyond and longer than this limit of one day, and the same [fine] must be payed by any and all of those who come to said feasts and kermises.316
On the other hand, Gibson and Kavaler have shown that this is only one side of the story.317 Antonio de Guevara (1480-1545), for instance, presents an idealized kermis as an enviable contrast to the intrigue and corruption faced daily by the courtier. In his popular and much translated Dispraise of the Court and Praise of the Rustic Life, Guevara commends the honest rejoicing that takes place during village religious holidays. He mentions the cleaning of the church and altars, the ringing of bells, the services and sermons. He concludes by noting women who pretty themselves for the
315 C. M. Jacobs, Works of Martin Luther, vol. 2, Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915. Cited from Project Wittenberg, Proposals for Reform, part II: http://www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/ wittenberg/luther/web/nblty-06.html. (June 15, 2007). 316 Ordonnancien, Statuten, Edicten en (de) Placcaten, Gent (1559), 761-2. (my translation) “Ende om to remedieren op de onghereghelde gulsicheyt ende dronckenschappen die daeghelicks ghebueren in onze landen van herwaertsouer, in diuersche cabaretten, taueernen, ende logijsten die bezydensweeghs ghehouden worden, buten steden ende dorpen ende den rechten openbaeren herbaenen ende anderen plecken: oock inden feesten ende kermissen, ende zonderlinghe op de gheschillen, doodslaeghen ende ander inconuenientien daer uut procederende, hebben wy ghestatueert ende gheordonneert […] dat die voorseyde feesten ende kermissen maer eenen dagh dueren enzullen, op de verbuerte van vijfthien Carolus guldenen by den ghenen ende elcken van hemlieden die de voorseide feesten ende kermissen buten ende langher dan den dagh daer toe geordonneert houden zullen: ende insghelijcks by den ghenen ende elcken van hemlieden die tot der voorsyder kermissen commen zullen.” For a detailed discussion of this edict and its potential impact on the celebration of kermises during Bruegel’s time, see A. Monballieu, “Nog eens Hoboken bij Bruegel en tijdgenoten,” Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen (1987), 185-206. 317 Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 195.
occasion, the meal and the playing afterwards, and the simple pleasures with which the day ends. It is especially interesting, writes Kavaler, that the Spiegel der duecht (Mirror of Virtue), a didactic work published in 1515, should not condemn the kermis but rather concede its attraction and counsel moderation in attendance and in behavior. Peasant festivals required caution not avoidance.318 Similar to the popular theme of the delicate balance prescribed between the seasons of Carnival and Lent leading up to Easter, each assigned their own span of time and function, and the abuses of both conveyed in Bruegel’s Battle Between Carnival and Lent, religious holidays were occasions in which the ambiguous relationship between pleasure and devotion had itself become a topic of discussion.319 Bruegel visualizes this ambiguity by playing on the newly emerging representations of antique bacchanalia in the North, combining figural constructions with a habit of viewing that emphasizes the interaction of foreground and background in such a way that one’s perspective becomes a topic per se. As a result, the viewing and interpretive processes reenact the act of balancing pleasure and devotion that is locked into the subject of the painting. Perception itself is already part of discerning meaning. There is a fundamental interplay between the construction of the paintings perspective and the construction of the viewer’s perspective of the world and his actions within it. In addition to the recessional space that leads to the church in the background, a second corridor in the center of the painting, created by the cascade of faces and arms and legs of the peasant couple in the middle ground, leads to a smiling jester in the distance who faces the viewer with his left hand raised. This gesture of proclamation both acknowledges the activities of the scene and points toward the city-dweller next to him who is visiting the countryside. People from the city often visited these rustic festivals and took pleasure in observing the playful customs of the peasant class.320 But, judging by the expression on the man’s face, a frowning scowl, he is not pleased
318 Ibid., 196. 319 See for example, K. Renger, “Karneval und Fasten. Bilder vom Fressen und Hungern,” Weltkunst, vol. 3 (1988), 184-189; A.P. van Gilst, Vastelavond en carnaval. De geschiedenis van een volksfeest, Veenendaal: Midgaard, 1974; Majzels, “The Dance in the Art of Pieter Bruegel the Elder” (1977); Walter Salmen, “Der ‘Bauerntanz’ im Urteil von Reformatoren und Reformierten,” in Beat Kümin (ed.), Landgemeinde und Kirche im Zeitalter der Konfessionen, Zürich: Chronos Verlag (2004), 91-110. 320 Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 164-211. See also Vandenbroeck, Beeld van de ander
with what he sees (fig. 63). The fool’s gesture is one often employed in more didactic moralizing pictures. For example, in an engraving after Cornelis Massys a fool is portayed in a brothel scene sitting at a table where men and women become more intimately acquainted (fig. 64). On the right, a woman kneels mischievously behind one of the male visitors and reaches her hand into his bag. The fool’s left hand is raised in front of him inviting the viewer to behold the folly unfolding. Likewise, a woodcut illustration in Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools shows a fool offering a similar gesture while he is explaining the heavens to a pensive man (fig. 65). Thus, the central fool in Bruegel’s Peasant Dance stands beside the urbanite and raises his hand, prompting the viewer to consider the scene from his perspective.321 Whether we understand these figures of the fool and gentleman to represent opposite outlooks on the revelry before them, one praising and one condemning, they share a detachment from the kermis activities and, therefore, function to shift the viewer’s perspective from one of pleasure and participation to one of judgment, to take account of and balance oppositional forces.322 The figures in the fore- and middle- ground of Bruegel’s painting are constructed so that the gaze of the viewer is guided into depth toward the discovery of two marginal, yet significant, details in the background, a church and a fool. Although minute in size, once recognized the viewer becomes sensitive not only to the relationship between the two but also the commentary this relationship offers for the festivities in the foreground. The two motifs are representative of the oppositional theme that makes up the subject of the picture—rustic revelers that juggle devotion and pleasure, religious observance and human folly, as they celebrate a sacred holiday. Similar to my discussion of Floris’s Feast of the Gods, for all the apparent revelry in Bruegel’s Peasant Dance, it too addresses a very topical subject, the questionable state of village kermises. The visual juxtapositions, both in form and content, not only function to define different, yet interactive, perspectives from which to view the
321 Kavaler also discusses the function of the fool in the background of many paintings and prints which offers negative commentary on the action in the foreground; see Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 200-211. 322 Edward Snow, Inside Bruegel: The Play of Images in Children’s Games, New York: North Point Press (1997), 55. See also Snow, 13-15 for a similar discussion regarding two children next to one another, one smiling and one wearing a mask of an adult frowning.
painting but also provide a model for the viewer to follow in further analyzing oppositional structures and motifs offered by the painting. The peasant woman on the right, who is guided into the scene by her partner, is in full stride. Her left leg is fully extended forward while the location of her right leg is only indicated by its foot, barely visible at the bottom right corner of the picture. Her long stride indicates the pair’s haste to participate in the day’s festivities. In midstep, she hurdles a broken pot handle that is prominently located in the foreground (fig. 66). The roundness and texture of the handle are carefully painted, along with a faint reflection of light. No doubt it could be argued that this detail is evidence of Bruegel’s keen observation of nature and represents his ability to paint nae ‘t leven.323 However, having previously observed the importance of the marginal motifs of the fool and church in the background, such an isolated detail placed prominently in view demands a second thought. Margaret Sullivan has pointed out that, for Bruegel’s audience, the broken or overturned pot was a sign for sexual promiscuity.324 “Gebroken potteken” had become a term for a girl who has lost her virginity; in the so-called Antwerp Liedboek from 1544, a poem states that, “young lovers are mocked who in springtime seduce a girl, and consequently marry a ‘broken little pot.’”325 Conversely, Konrad Renger uses this argument to make the opposite claim for a painting by Maarten van Cleve in which a bride holding a pot and candle is escorted to her wedding bed; that the pot is whole indicates that her innocence is also still intact.326 Thus, the association of the broken pot handle between the open legs of the woman bears commentary on her licentious character. Yet, Bruegel’s visual grammar does not stop with simple moral condemnation. Similar to the oppositional theme created by the compositional juxtaposition of the fool and church, this iconographical reference is also paired with a similarly counteractive motif. Just above the right shoulder of the woman hangs a
323 Picturing nae‘t leven involves picturing something with reference to a direct viewing experience; Melion, Shaping the Netherlandish Canon (1991), 63. 324 Sullivan, Bruegel’s Peasants (1994), 62. 325 As translated by P.J. Vinken, “Some Observations on the Symbolism of the Broken Pot in Art and Literature,” American Imago, vol. 15 (1958), 149-174; see also, Gisela Zick, “Der zerbrochene Krug als Bildmotiv des 18. Jahrhunderts,” Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, vol. 31 (1969), 149-204. 326 Konrad Renger, “Tränen in der Hochzeitsnacht,” in Lucius Grisebach and Konrad Renger (eds.), Festschrift für Otto von Simson zum 65. Geburtstag, Frankfurt a.M.: Propyläen Verlag (1977), 312-327.
crude wooden frame attached to a tree with a colored woodcut of Mary cradling a naked Christ Child. Such objects of worship functioned as roadside chapels and were widespread in the Netherlands. They were incentives to, and objects of, prayers and other practices of popular religion.327 Below this image hangs a pot in which someone has placed freshly picked flowers as a token of his or her reverence for the Virgin and Child. The visual connection of these two details, an image of Mary and Christ with a pot bearing flowers in honor of her virgin birth located directly above and behind a broken pot handle between the legs of a woman signifying that she has lost her virginity, functions to underline, both in form and content, the oppositional nature of what is represented, namely the fragile balance between celebratory, carefree behavior and cultivated reverence when observing church holidays. Moving to the center of the image, the peasant woman’s male companion also strides swiftly into the scene. The bottom portion of his left leg is extended backward into the air while his right foot is planted on the ground. On closer observation, it is difficult to make out which is the right leg and which is the left because of their awkward placement so close together. The width of the upper portion of the peasant’s body, especially his shoulders and hips, is far too broad for the way in which his legs are depicted, one in front of the other. In fact, what is the peasant’s right leg is more accurately represented if it is understood to be his left leg; although, this is impossible since the left leg overlaps in front of it. Given the accurate depiction of the complex figural compositions surrounding this figure, such an awkward assembly that is prominently displayed in the center foreground could, on the one hand, be seen as a willful formal construction, much like the hands in Hemessen’s Calling of St. Matthew or Bruegel’s “third foot” in the Peasant Wedding Banquet, which functions to attract prolonged viewing and force the viewer to see the painting as individual parts that must be reconstructed. On the other hand, in connection with his coarse face, sunken forehead and display of teeth, the visual effect of such an awkward composition also acts to enhance the rough, unrefined nature of the peasant’s haste.
327 Falkenburg, “Pieter Bruegel’s Series of the Seasons” (2001). See also Achim Timmermann, “The Poor Sinner’s Cross and the Pillory: Late Medieval Microarchitecture and Liturgies of Criminal Punishment,” in Uwe Albrecht and Christine Kratzke (eds.), Mikroarchitektur im Mittelalter. Ein gattungsübergreifendes Phänomen zwischen Realität und Imagination, Nürnberg (forthcoming, 2007
With his back to the viewer, his body indicates that he is moving into depth; yet, the direction of his gaze to the left, over the heads of the bagpipers, reveals that his attention is settled on the drunken discussion taking place at the table. Looking to the ground, two crossed pieces of hay are depicted beneath him (fig. 67). Similar to the broken pot handle on the ground under the woman, the hay is carefully represented— fibers flake off and where the pieces cross a shadow is cast—and could be viewed as a natural detail ornamenting a scene of a country village. Upon closer observation, however, multiple authors have noted that the crossed pieces of hay form a particular symbol, the cross of the Christian church.328 Furthermore, the right foot of the man so eager to join in the dancing—and judging by his gaze to the left, the drinking—is blind to the religious symbol and tramples on it. As with the image of Mary and a pot of flowers above the right shoulder of his female companion, arms forming an arch that echo and point toward the arches of the church are located above the man’s right shoulder. Seen in isolation, a figure stepping on crossed pieces of hay in a rustic seen would not justify an iconographic reading. But viewed in the context of the religious occasion of the festivities, coupled with the visual strategy that consistently connects, and thus clarifies, the oppositional nature of marginal motifs, the man stepping on the cross in the foreground formally connected to a church in the background functions to once again emphasize the dynamic balance, push and pull, between the pleasure and devotion involved in a religious festival. The motif is an indication that the unbridled pleasure of the characters represented competes with any devotion to a religious saint. In puzzling out the connection between theses references, the viewer is forced to visually negotiate the rustic space of the kermis, from foreground to background, while at the same time consider the peasant’s daily behavior within a sacred context. Therefore, the viewer’s careful “observance” of the painting stands in opposition to the peasant’s carefree “observance” of the religious holiday. The beholder incorporates the very mental characteristics that the peasants lack, namely balance, foresight and insight, in navigating pleasure and piety—acts of gratification and devotional iconography—the two primary aspects of peasant kermises that seemed to be in
328 Several scholars have suggested this possibility, both in support of and opposition to the idea; see Klaus Demus, Pieter Bruegel the Elder at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Wien: Kunsthistorisches Museum (1999), 139.
constant conflict. While the peasants represent one perspective on the festivities, through visually analyzing both the painting’s syntax and content, quite a different perspective on the church festival is cultivated in the mind of the viewer. As Kavaler and Falkenburg have pointed out, structural oppositions, or antithetical motifs, particularly between foreground and background, have a longer history in Netherlandish art.329 Falkenburg argues that in the biblical landscapes of Herri met de Bless and Jan van Amstel, among others, antithetical iconography in the foreground and background or left and right margins of the painting characterize the alternatives offered to the beholder as they scan the view of the world.330 They function as “machina” for the viewer to “see through,” or beyond, what initially confronts their gaze to spiritual insights that are, both in the picture and life itself, less visible and more difficult to ascertain. According to Jan Emmens, the paintings of Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer, in which depictions of markets or kitchens with peasants and foodstuffs in the foreground are combined with biblical narratives in the background, are to be regarded as moral allegories.331 The figures in the foreground, he claims, are personifications of sensual or materialistic vices which are to be considered in light of the spiritual teaching of the biblical narrative in the background. For example, in the Market Stall (1551, fig. 68), the viewer’s gaze is attracted, even consumed, by the elaborate and realistic portrayal of various meats, in particular a
329 Kavaler, Pieter Bruegel (1999), 10 and Kavaler, “Structural Opposition and Narrative Function in Bruegel’s Christ and the Adulteress,” in Jane Fenoulhet and Lesley Gilbert (eds), Presenting the Past: History, Art, Language, and Literature, London: University College London, Centre for Low Countries Studies (1996), 171-191. See also K.C. Lindsay and B. Huppé, “Meaning and Method in Bruegel’s Painting,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 14 (1956), 376-386. For a discussion of this schema in the work of Herri met de Bles, see Michel Weemans, “Herri met de Bles’s Sleeping Peddler: An Exegetical and Anthropomorphic Landscape,” Art Bulletin, vol. 88, no. 3 (2006), 459-481. For a broader discussion of this visual technique, see Efraim Sicher, “Binary Oppositions and Spatial Representation: Toward an Applied Semiotics,” Semiotica, vol. 60 (1986), 211-224. 330 Reindert Falkenburg, “Marginal Motifs in Early Flemish Landscape Paintings,” in Norman E. Muller, Betsy J. Rosasco, James H. Marrow (eds.), Herri met de Bles: Studies and Explorations of the World Landscape Tradition, Turnhout: Brepols Publishers (1998), 153-169; “Iconographical Connections Between Antwerp Landscapes, Market Scenes and Kitchen Pieces, 1500-1580,” Oud Holland, vol. 102 (1988), 114-126. See also Oskar Bätschmann, “’Lot und seine Töchter’ im Louvre. Metaphorik, Antithetik und Ambiguität in einem niederländischen Gemälde des frühen 16. Jahrhunderts,” StädelJahrbuch, n.s. 8 (1981), 159-185. 331 J.A. Emmens, “’Eins aber ist nötig’—Zu Inhalt und Bedeutung von Markt- und Küchenstücken des 16. Jahrhunderts,” in J. Bruyn (ed.), Album Amicorum J.G. van Gelder, Den Haag: Nijhoff (1973), 93101. See also K.M. Craig, ‘Pars ergo Marthae transit: Pieter Aertsen’s “inverted” paintings of Christ in the house of Martha and Mary’, Oud Holland, vol. 97 (1983), 25-39
monumental cow’s head, while a small vignette in the background depicting the Flight into Egypt shows Mary giving up food, offering it to a begging child.332 The allurement of worldly pleasure in the foreground, coupled with spiritual commentary in the background is a combination also taken up by Meadow in his discussion of Aertsen’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, now in Rotterdam (fig. 69).333 Generally stated, rather than seeing them as antithetical to one another, Meadow argues that if compared to the similar spatial arrangement of the stage for rederijker plays and the function of the tableau vivant, which would have been behind the open stage and more distant from the audience, the relationship of foreground and background can be understood to operate in a reciprocal relationship, the former helping to prepare the viewer for the latter and the latter helping to explicate the former. Aertsen also incorporates a connection between foreground and background oppositional motifs in his depiction of a village kermis, Return from a Pilgrimage to St. Anthony (ca. 1550, fig. 70) now in Brussels. The panoramic view of the painting reveals a procession passing in the background in which attendants raise banners and carry a statue of St. Anthony, the figure to whom the festivities are dedicated. The statue is clothed in bright yellow and women from the village kneel in devotion. The presence of peasant festivities is rather subtle while the urban guests who visit from the city are prominently displayed in the foreground. In the right foreground, a bearded beggar sits near the creek flowing in the middle. In his right hand, he holds a bowl in which to collect his alms. He is surrounded by skulls that serve as momento mori, presumably to aid in his request for assistance. An additional reminder of mortality is the ash cross marked on the beggar’s forehead. In the center of the painting, a wealthy urban couple ride a white horse across the body of water. While the couple looks back over their shoulder, focusing their attention down toward a barking dog, their horse rears its front legs as if about to trample the beggar in front of them.
332 For a detailed analysis of this painting see Charlotte Houghton, “This was Tomorrow: Pieter Aertsen’s Meat Stall as Contemporary Art,” Art Bulletin, vol. 86, no. 2 (June 2004), 277-300; Reindert Falkenburg, “Matters of Taste: Pieter Aertsen’s Market Scenes, Eating Habits, and Pictorial Rhetoric in the Sixteenth Century,’ in A.W. Lowenthal (ed.), The Object as Subject. Studies in the Interpretation of Still Life, Princeton (1996), 13-27; Pieter Aertsen, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, vol. 40, 1989; Sullivan, “Aertsen’s Kitchen and Market Scenes” (1999). 333 Meadow, “Aertsen’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” (1995).
The golden, yellow garment worn by the bearded man on the ground is the same color as the St. Anthony statue in the background and functions to visually connect the saint and the beggar. When St. Anthony began his life as a hermit, he sold all his possessions, gave the proceeds to the poor and went into the desert to lead a life of prayer and contemplation. His subsequent life of solitude was supported in large part by the giving of alms.334 Furthermore, what looks to be a crutch at the man’s side also replicates the staff carried by Anthony in depictions of the saint, which is in the shape of the Tau cross (or St. Anthony’s cross) as depicted on the left side of the painting. The correlation between the saint in the background and beggar in the foreground also functions to contrast Anthony’s venerative audience with the impious action of the urbanites on the horse, which is illustrated by the couple’s haste and blindness to a man in need. An additional marginal motif on the left supports this visual connection between foreground and background, sacred and profane figures. As I mentioned, to the left stands a tall Tau cross. Just to the right of the upper portion of the cross, a peasant man stands on a fence and leans against a tree. When seen in isolation, the man and his raised arms follow the dancing of the revelers in front of him. But situated as he is next to the cross, the man also assumes the posture of Christ during his crucifixion. The juxtaposition of the cross with the festive peasant and the veneration of Anthony with the couple’s inattentativeness to the beggar, possibly an echo of the saint, highlights the dual nature of celebrating a church holiday—reverence and revelry—and is highly reminiscent of similar oppositional motifs I have described in Bruegel’s Peasant Dance. The use of opposition as an informative visual mechanism, particularly between foreground and background or the center and margins of a painting, is a practice of picturing employed by a number of Bruegel’s predecessors and contemporaries and, therefore, was not only taken up by the artist but would have also informed the habit of viewing that engaged the painting. Kavaler compares Bruegel’s Peasant Dance to similar compositions of historiae which are constructed by monumental figures in the foreground that guide the viewer to “see through” (doorkijk) to small, yet significant, scenes in the 334 On the life of St. Anthony, see Henri Queffelec, Saint Anthony of the Desert, New York: Dutton, 1954
background.335 For example, in a contemporary tapestry representing The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1550, fig. 71), three pairs of struggling Romans in the foreground form a central opening that permits a view into the distance. As in Bruegel’s picture, figures in this gap decrease rapidly in size, implying abrupt recession. At the vanishing point of the perspectival construction is the small figure, not of a fool, but of Romulus, who leans out from his gallery and orders the abduction. Kavaler explains that the viewer’s process of locating the Roman king beyond the three couples and thereby grasping the idea of plan and purpose might be likened to the discovery of the fool beyond the dancing couples in Bruegel’s painting and its role within the development of the narrative.336 The same year of Bruegel’s Peasant Dance, Maarten de Vos painted St. Paul and the Silversmith Demetrius (fig. 72).337 The scene represents Acts 19: 23-41 in which Demetrius and his colleagues, their livelihood threatened by Christian proscription against pagan images, aggressively confront the Apostle in Ephesus.338 A crowd of characters occupy the entire left side of the picture; they exhibit dramatic facial expressions and seem to emphatically move toward St. Paul in the center. A figure in the left foreground also steps toward the Apostle, his arms are open wide and, along with the extended left arm of the man to his right, function to bracket the crowd and focus the viewer’s gaze on the emotion they display. The weight of the group bears against the figure of St. Paul, but the visual momentum to the right is continued by the apostle’s right arm extending upward and pointing toward the recessional space leading into the distance toward a significant event. On the right side of the painting, three figures in particular also function to frame a view of the scene in the distance of books burning. These two images can serve as additional examples for what was considered in this period to be ambitious paintings of history—the way figures are thoughtfully composed to guide the viewer through the fictive space and insure that certain elements or motifs were seen in relation to one another, especially in terms of foreground and background, while not losing sight of the composition as a whole. The comparison to 335 Kavaler, Parables of Order and Enterprise (1999), 203.
Bruegel’s later peasant paintings further reveals the way in which the artist mediates characteristics from this mode of representation—particularly the use of monumental figures whose careful composition frames actions, emotions and spaces that both guide the gaze and lead into depth toward marginal yet significant details—for his peasant scenes, employing the visual mechanisms of historiae to cultivate his vernacular style. With this in mind, another duo of oppositional motifs I will mention in Bruegel’s Peasant Dance occurs on the left side of the picture. A triangular-shaped red banner hangs from what is probably the local village inn (fig. 73). The banner is large, twice as long as the figures beneath it. The symbols on the flag are very similar to the one represented in Bruegel’s St. George Kermis. However, whereas the saint is depicted alone on the banner in the print, two figures are shown in the Peasant Dance; Mary is on the left and St. George stands on the right. The saint holds a weapon in one hand and what looks like arrows in the other. George was the patron saint of Antwerp where the city militia also took on his name and there was a church of Saint George.339 When the saint is depicted alone, it is a representation of his status as patron saint of cavalry. But, when he is depicted in the company of Mary it symbolizes an attribute that evolved in the later Middle Ages from his association with cavalry—he is the protector of women and a model of chivalry.340 In a fifteenth-century German engraving of St. George with the Stork’s Nest (fig. 74), now in Chicago, Meister E.S. (1420-1468) depicts the saint killing the dragon with a lance, while his right arm is raised with a sword pointing to the damsel in distress he is protecting. According to The Golden Legend, after George slayed the dragon, the king whose daughter the knight saved built a church where the dragon had been slain. He dedicated it to Mary
339 For a discussion on St. George as the patron Saint of Antwerp, see Wuyts, L. “Het St.-Jorisretabel van de Oude Voetboog,” Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (1971), 107–136; See also Christine Göttler, Die Kunst des Fegefeuers nach der Reformation: Kirchliche Schenkungen, Ablass und Almosen in Antwerpen und Bologna um 1600, Mainz: Philipp von Zabern (1996), esp. 145-154. 340 The popularity of Saint George, patron saint of arms and chivalry, is generally dated to the time of the Germanic kingdoms in the early medieval period. On the life and attributes of St. George, see Samantha Riches, Saint George: Hero, Martyr and Myth, Stroud: Sutton, 2000; S. Braunfels, “Georg” and “Georg und Maria,” in E. Kirschbaum (ed.), Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie, 8 Bde., Rome, Vienna and Basil (1968-76), 365-390; W. Haubrichs, “Georg, Heiliger,” in G. Krause and G. Müller (eds.), Theologische Realenzyklopädie, Berlin, vol. 12 (1984), 380-385; Brigit Blass-Simmen, Sankt Georg: Drachenkampf in der Renaissance, Berlin: Mann Verlag (1991), 93-97.
and Saint George.341 By the fifteenth century, not only was George the patron of soldiers but he also was the personification of the ideals of Christian chivalry.342 It is important to point out here that the banner of St. George and Mary in the Peasant Dance is on the same horizontal line as the church in the background and Marian devotional image hanging on the tree. To the left of this motif, in the left foreground, a number of peasant figures crowd around a table decorated with bread, butter and beer mugs. The man in the blue hat sitting at the head of the table bears an empty, drunken gaze; his wide eyes look across toward another figure on the far left side who enters the scene. Like the first figure, this man blunderingly reaches into the air with his right arm, apparently for nothing in particular, and his gaze is directed upward in a completely different direction; the direction of his gaze is peculiar, especially since his hand is extended directly in front of him. A third peasant sits between these two. He holds a beer mug in his right hand and places his left hand on the shoulder of his companion. His mouth is open and his hat dips over his eyes. His interest in the action at the table seems to distract him from what could be his female companion who leans in for an affectionate kiss. Directly behind this couple, another pair tightly embrace and kiss on the lips. As with the recessional spaces so clearly framed in the center and right side of the painting, upon closer analysis of the formal construction of this vignette, we can see that the tight grouping of peasant figures is demarcated within a triangular frame, which is similar to the shape of the red flag hanging from the inn, but now inverted (fig. 75). While the peasant entering from the left completely extends his right arm in front of him, his gaze is directed upward. Although the gesture and gaze are not consistent with one another, they create an angle the sides of which enclose the couple before him. On the other side of the group, the drones of the bagpipe are angled in such a way that their intersection with the direction of the man’s extended arm forms a second acute angle incorporating the figure wearing the blue hat. The upper portion of the bagpipe drones are compositionally extended by the foremost side of the village inn’s roofline, whose angle forms the apex of the triangle. The final side of the frame is completed by 341 Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, Readings on the Saints, 2 vols., trans. by William Granger Ryan, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1993), vol. 1, 238. 342 David Hugh Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, New York: Oxford University Press (1978), 166. See also Wallace F. Cornish, Chivalry, New York: The MacMillan Co., 1911.
the backside of the roofline which extends downward and intersects with the upward gaze of the peasant man. The compositional borders function as brackets for the figures and their actions and they can be seen as representing one of the two perspectives that is consistently denoted in the painting. The crowd of characters participates in the pleasures of the revelry. Whether eating, drinking or kissing their gazes are empty (or blinded) and their minds are free from care and restraint. The effect of well-constructed compositions demand certain ways of looking, whether or not the viewer is conscious of them. The triangular compositional frame not only functions to emphasize certain interactions that must be puzzled out by the viewer but also causes this group of people to be viewed in relation to other interactions framed within similar spaces, for example the figures of Mary and St. George on the triangular red flag. The resonance between the two triangles is further suggested by the peasant man kissing his lover; although his behavior is contradictory to the chivalrous act displayed by the saint honored by the flag, the vibrant red color of his hat and shirt echo the hue of the banner. The particular depiction of St. George and Mary symbolizes that he was the protector of women and patron saint of chivalry. The banner indicates that the church festival unfolding is dedicated to him, as well as, presumably, to the characteristics he represents. For example, the celebration of holy days often included the theatrical reenactment of events from the life of the saint being honored, such as St. George killing the dragon.343 However, in the foreground to the left of this motif, the triangular frame I just described demarcates figures that are a far better indication of the tenor of the festivities unfolding in the scene. The elongated triangle—yet now inverted—frames two couples. While one pair engages in an affectionate embrace, the other couple includes a drunken man completely ignoring the advances of his partner. Rather than reenacting events from the life of the saint, these two motifs ennact the exact opposite (or inverted) extremes of the chivalry and honor represented by St. George and Mary. The oppositional nature of the interaction between what the flag represents and what surrounds it is underscored (literally) by the couple located in the doorway directly beneath it. While it is impossible to discern whether the woman is
343 See Ramakers, Spelen en Figuren (1996), 260.
trying to pull the man inside or the man is attempting to persuade her to join him in a dance, what is clear is that there is a resistance between the two, a desire for one not to do what the other wants. This pair also stands in stark contrast to the mutual reverence symbolized by the couple on the flag. By analyzing the formal aspects of the painting, a connection between two different vignettes, and two different perspectives, is revealed. Seen in isolation, they are details that appropriately ornament an event in the countryside. Yet, when one triangular section is viewed in the context of the other, as well as with the visual strategies represented in different areas of the painting, the viewer recognizes the pairing to repeat both the foreground/background relationship between motifs and the oppositional relationship between what the motifs represent. The red banner, church, and roadside chapel are details that all occupy the same horizontal line and are located behind their oppositional counterparts (framed peasant couples, crossed hay and broken pot handle) in the foreground. The visual analysis that involves navigating the various grounds of the painting, employing foresight and insight to see the different perspectives on display and connecting oppositional motifs requires meditative thought that negotiates between acts of pleasure and religious symbols, between dancing and devotion. Therefore, in the performance of close visual analysis, the patient and contemplative viewer exercises the discipline and mental agility that is absent in the carefree peasant figures depicted, yet absolutely essential when honorably celebrating a church holiday. We could imagine a painting such as this hanging in a room to which dinner guests retreated after a meal. In fact, we know from Noirot’s inventory that a peasant dance on canvas by Bruegel hung, along with a peasant wedding attributed to Hieronymus Bosch, in an upper room above the salon that could have served this function, the “camer boven de salen.”344 This time after dinner, according to the convivium literature, allowed for food and conversation to digest while more lighthearted entertainment took place.345 Friendly games or competitions, usually involving the composition of poetry, often accompanied dessert. No doubt Bruegel’s
344 Goldstein, “Keeping up Appearances” (2003), 46. 345 See the “Profane Feast” where the character Christian discusses “bantor” about light subjects during dessert; Erasmus, Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 39 (1997), 14
painting of a holiday could have echoed the leisurely function of this kind of room. The equilibrium between pleasure and self-control that the painting advocates would have not only been a topic of discussion regarding the theme of the painting but also for the social setting in which the painting hung, a place where the delicate balance between wine and wittiness was also of prime concern. In the opening of the “Profane Feast,” the characters Christian and Augustine immediately engage in a conversation addressing such issues. After sitting at the table, Augustine proclaims, “Let’s live now and make ourselves sleek. Let’s be Epicureans now. We’ve no use for Stoic sternness. Farewell, cares! Away with all spite, off with distraction, on with the carefree mind, merry countenance, witty talk.” After a brief discussion regarding the definition of human happiness—Epicureans live by pleasure while the Stoics by stern moral virtue—Christian asks Augustine whether he is a Stoic or Epicurean. Augustine responds, “I praise Zeno [Stoic] but I follow Epicurus.”346 However, later in the meal, Augustine opines, “If I were pope, I would urge everyone to perpetual sobriety of life, especially when a feast day was near. But, I would decree that a person may eat anything for the sake of bodily health so long as he did it moderately and thankfully.”347 But, typically for Augustine, this seriousness does not last long; he continues a few lines later: “Now we’ve had enough theology at this party. We’re at dinner, not the Sorbonne…Let’s absorb, then, and not argue, lest our Sorbonne be named from sorbs instead of from the absorbing of wine.”348 The negotiation between pleasure and moderation is also prominently staged in the “Godly Feast,” a dinner which itself takes place in a country house outside the city. Whereas the host, Eusibeus, boasts about the quality of the wine being served, “The wine is of my own growth,” Sophronius later responds with a raised finger in warning: “In wine there’s truth (When wine is in the wit is out).”349 Once again, we are presented with a painting that calls on various aspects of the beholder’s awareness—artistic, literary and religious—in the process of visual analysis. The painting is constructed in such a way that the viewer is led to see certain aspects of
346 Thompson, The Colloquies of Erasmus (1965), 135. 347 Ibid., 146. 348 Ibid. 349 Desiderius Erasmus, All the Familiar Colloquies of Desiderius Erasmus, of Rotterdam Concerning Men, Manners, and Things, trans. by N. Bailey, London (1733), 110.
the picture in relation to one another, creating a visual experience that participates in the push and pull of the image, considering the juxtaposition of foreground and background. In so doing, this experience performs the balancing act of reverence and revelry that seems to be lost on many of the peasants portrayed and of particular importance both for celebrating a feast day as well as the social setting for Bruegel’s likely wealthy, cultivated viewers. Furthermore, the distribution of monumental figures also plays on contemporary visual concepts incorporated for painted historiae, such as antique bacchanalia, the recognition of which would have inspired thematic associations between the classical theme as it was received and judged in the sixteenthcentury Netherlands, namely the necessity for an equilibrium between pleasure and self-control, and the peasant kermis. The combination of antique and modern themes, sacred and profane, and a painting of everyday life in the form of a historia, all imaginative constructions on the part of Bruegel, would have provoked his contemporary viewers and inspired conversation on multiple levels—about art theoretical ideas and opinions, about religion, and about the relationship of celebration and self-control in their own lives.