The Philosophical Painter: Bruegel the Elder

Portrait of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1572, Engraving, 203 × 124 mm. From Dominicus Lampsonius, Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies, published by Hieronymus Cock’s widow Volcxken Diericx, Antwerp, plate 19. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Popular in his own day, the paintings of Pieter Brueghel (or Bruegel the Elder) are full of zest and fine detail with few comparable parallels in European art. Born in 1525 in the Netherlands, he was accepted as a master in the Antwerp painters’ guild in 1551, after being an apprentice of Coecke van Aelst, a leading Antwerp artist, sculptor, architect, and designer of tapestry and stained glass. Bruegel then traveled to Italy in 1551 or 1552, completing a number of paintings, mostly landscapes. Returning home in 1553, he settled in Antwerp, but ten years later he moved permanently to Brussels. His paintings, including his landscapes and scenes of peasant life, stress the absurd and vulgar, yet are full of zest and fine detail. They also expose human weaknesses and follies. Bruegel died in Brussels on Sept. 9, 1569, leaving a rich legacy of philosophical artworks that still resonate with diverse audience today.

Selected Works of Bruegel the Elder

The Fall of Icarus (1560)

As a starter, we look at Bruegel’s piece the Fall of Icarus which captures the exact climax of the famous story aesthetically, as viewers can see a pair of legs poking out from the sea on the foreground of the painting. While the tale paints a tragic event, the subjects in Bruegel’s painting appear to be passive rather than entranced, as they continue on with their daily routines, alluding to how humans are often indifferent to tragic events, especially when these events do not directly concern them. You can admire this painting at the Royal Museum of Fine Art in Brussels.

The Triumph of Death (1562)

The Triumph Of Death depicts a battle-stricken landscape, and showcases Bruegel’s incredibly complex style. Spend some time looking at it to really comprehend the symbolism behind this marvellous work. Notice that one of the two armies fighting against each other is composed entirely of skeletons! The painting also features objects and activities that are intended to depict daily life in the 16th century, but an odd twist of fate has this otherwise tranquil landscape morphed into a scene of destruction as the skeletons seem to take over the village. You can admire this artwork in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where it has been since 1827.

The Tower of Babel (1563)

The Tower of Babel is a famous story from the Old Testament. The Bible narrates that shortly after the Flood, when all men spoke the same language, King Nimrod of Babylon wanted to build a tower that would reach to the sky:

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” – Genesis 11:4.

But to punish him for his vanity, God endowed the workers with different languages so that they could no longer understand each other and the work stopped.

”So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. – Genesis 11:5-9

Bruegel painted three versions of the Tower of Babel. While one of the three paintings is lost, the remaining two represent some of Bruegel’s finest work. This version depicted below is the most famous.

The tower is of course the central element in the painting. We see it rising to the sky with an increasingly unstable structure as it approaches the clouds. All around, a city that appears tiny to us serves to give the measure of the tower’s size. In the lower left corner, King Nimrod (dressed in Renaissance fashion as an evocation of King Philip II of Spain who ruled the Netherlands at the time) is visiting the construction site. He is accompanied by his architect and the guards while the stonemasons pay tribute to him.

The Tower of Babel (detail)

On the horizon, nature stretches as far as the eye can see: fields, valleys, forests, meadows and watercourses provide a panorama of the wonders of our Earth and underline the beauty of divine creation, as opposed to the gigantic yet futile work of man. This painting is currently displayed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565)

This magnificent winter landscape is another well-known masterpiece by Bruegel. Here, Bruegel depicts a motley group of children sleighing, skaters, ball game players frolicking in a snowy landscape. The bird trap in this painting’s title can be seen at the bottom right (it is the sloping plank with food beneath and a rope attached to it). None of the people notice the trap, which, when pulled, will cause the board to fall onto the feeding birds. Herein lies the subtle meaning of the painting: life is precarious: one bad judgement, and we could well fall. This piece of art is currently located at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.

Hunters in the Snow (1565)

In Hunters in the Snow, Bruegel offers a bird’s eye view of a hunting scene in the depths of winter. You can almost feel the piercing cold as the hunters and their dogs, along with ice-skating peasants go about their activities. The painting can be appreciated from various angles. First, there is the wonderful scenery filled with interesting details. On the left side, the land slopes down to a expansive middle section that is teeming with life. Here, we see a person carrying a load of sticks over a bridge, ice-skaters are frolicking in the frozen pond, and a bird is gliding across the snow valley dotted with bare trees. Bruegel record all these in minute detail that is typical of his landscape paintings.

Second, there is deeper message. Amid the crisp, white scene of a winter day, a darker subtext emerges. The hunters are trudging through the snow wearily, their heads cast downwards. Only one man has caught something (a small fox). As if sensing their masters’ disappointment, the dogs, too seem forlorn, a point emphasized by their droopy ears and tails. Therefore, the white of winter is contrasted with the dark reality that altogether, it has been an unsuccessful hunt. When this despondent scene is juxtaposed with the playful central scene, Bruegel is subtly reminding us that life is always a mixture of the bitter and the sweet.

Leave a Reply