Pieter Bruegel the Elder ‘The Draughtsman and engraver ‘

wedding dance in the open air by pieter bruegel the elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569)

The greatest Netherlandish artist of the 16th century and an accomplished draughtsman and engraver, Pieter Bruegel the Elder is mostly remembered for his lively peasant scenes. His detailed and sympathetic observations of everyday peasant life earned him the nickname 'Peasant Bruegel', but in fact, he had influential patrons and cultured friends and was probably an educated, sophisticated man.

Bruegel's paintings reflect the religious and moral preoccupations of the time. With his move from Antwerp to Brussels, his early crowded scenes gave way to the impressive landscapes and vigorous figures of his most memorable works, painted during the last five years of his life. These large-scale oils elevated landscape painting to a new eminence, and paved the way for the Dutch Masters of the 17th century.

portrait of pieter bruegel the elder


The Flemish Enigma

Bruegel is popularly known as 'Peasant Bruegel' because of his marvelous portrayals of country life. But the little known about his life suggests he was a literate and cultivated man.

Bruegel's public image today is not unlike the one he enjoyed during his lifetime. Modern ephemera - Christmas cards, calendars, record sleeves-have made his paintings as familiar to today's public as the engravings of his works were to his contemporaries. Despite this, however, our knowledge of his life is disappointingly limited.

The few contemporary records that refer to him inform us that he was enrolled in the painters' guild in Antwerp in 1551, that in 1563 he moved to Brussels, where he married Mayken Coecke, the daughter of his former master, and that he died and was buried there in 1569. We have no clues as to his parents, the manner of his upbringing, or his early education. There are no letters, no diaries, and no first-hand written records of his beliefs.


Even the date and the place of his birth are unknown, although informed guesses can be made as to both. As he was made a master in the painters' guild in 1551, it is highly probable (presuming he followed the normal course of apprenticeship) that he was born between 1525 and 1530. And as an Italian writer referred to him in 1567 as 'Pietro Brueghel di Breda', the town of Breda, then in the duchy of Brabant, is accepted by most scholars as the likeliest place of his birth.

The most important early source of information on Bruegel is the brief biography of him in Het Schilderboek (The Book of Painters), written by the Flemish painter Karel van Mander and published in 1604. This is a lively account, peppered with anecdotes, but in some ways, it is more misleading than helpful, as it creates the image of Bruegel as essentially a comic painter rather than the profound and varied master he was. It is not surprising that Van Mander should foster the idea of Bruegel as the illiterate purveyor of a crude, rustic humor, as by the time he wrote, most of the master's paintings had been absorbed into private collections and his fame rested, to a large degree, on copies of his peasant scenes by his elder son and on the engravings executed early in his career.

Van Mander tells us that Bruegel started his career as a pupil of Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-50), one of the leading artists in Antwerp. At this period, the city was enjoying a golden period of prosperity and expansion. As the approaches to Bruges silted up, it took over as the leading port in the Low Countries, inheriting the commerce of Venice and the Hanseatic League, and becoming an important stage in the Portuguese spice routes to the east. The population doubled in the first half of the 16th century and the growth of a flourishing export trade in artworks drew artists from all parts of the country.

Antwerp's reputation as a printing centre also increased enormously. It produced over half the books issued in the Low Countries and began to rival the international status of Paris and Lyons. Bruegel's teacher Pieter Coecke was more distinguished for his publishing activities than for his paintings. The translation of the famous architectural treatise of Sebastiano Serlio that he issued in 1545 was particularly important in spreading the ideals of Italian Renaissance architecture in northern Europe.

the port of naples painting by pieter bruegel the elder

View of Naples (detail):
This splendid panorama of the Bay of Naples is the only surviving painting connected with Bruegel's trip to Italy in the early 1550s. It may have been painted in Italy, although some authorities think it was done from drawings after Bruegel returned to the Netherlands. Most of the painting is topographically accurate – the massive, round-towered building is the Castel Nuovo – but Bruegel has altered the shape of the jetty from rectangular to circular.

picture of antwerp

Trading centre of Europe:
Bruegel spent most of his career in Antwerp, which at the time was one of the richest cities in the world. Its prosperity depended on its great port, which drew trade from all over Europe. Works of art played an important part in the export trade; in 1567, 300 artists were recorded in the city.


Bruegel was only a little affected by the Italian influence that characterized Coecke's paintings as well as his books, but soon after being enrolled in the guild of painters he set out on a tour of Italy. This was the normal thing for an ambitious young Flemish artist to do, for painters who could work in a style that showed acquaintance with the latest developments in Italy - 'Romanists' as they were called - tended to gain the best commissions.

Our knowledge of Bruegel's journey comes mainly from drawings and a painting he made during it. He seems to have spent some time in the studio of a miniaturist called Giulio Clovio in Rome, perhaps collaborating with him as a landscape specialist, and then proceeded further south to Naples, Reggio di Calabria and Sicily, before embarking on the leisurely return journey to Antwerp in 1553.

Ironically, the long-term benefits of Bruegel's trip were to come not from Italy itself, but from the spectacular experience of crossing the Alps. Their grandeur fired his imagination and Van Mander in an often-cited passage described the result: it was said of him, when he traveled through the Alps, that he swallowed all the mountains and rocks and spat them out again, after his return, on his canvases and panels, so closely was he able to follow nature here and in her other works.'

picture of alpine landscape
drawing of alpine landscape by pieter bruegel the elder

An Alpine journey:
Bruegel's journey to Italy had a profound influence on his art, but it was his passage over the Alps rather than the experience of Italy itself that left its mark. He made several drawings of the spectacular scenery and on his return to Antwerp, he designed a series of 12 magnificent landscape engravings reflecting his experiences.


This quality was to be fully exploited by Jerome Cock, an engraver, printer, and editor who employed Bruegel from 1555, publishing a series of 12 large landscapes based on the young painter's designs. Cock's print selling business, 'Aux Quatre Vents' (At the Sign of the Four Winds), was an international concern by this time. His own taste was for the fashionable Italianate style and it has been suggested that he had prompted Bruegel to travel south, with a view to adding him to his stable of Romanist artists.

In the event, Bruegel's talents were channeled in another direction. The late 1550s saw a revival of interest in the symbolic fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch. The latter had died in 1516, but pastiches of his work continued to sell readily long after his death and Bruegel's employer seems to have set him to tap this lucrative market. Certainly, Cock's eye for profit is confirmed by the inscription 'Hieronymus Bos Inventor' engraved at the foot of Bruegel's Big Fish Eat Little Fish - a flagrant attempt on the publisher's part to pass off the print as an original by Bosch. Bosch's influence is visible also in some of Bruegel's pictures. However, Bruegel's commitment to this style was strongly linked to his service with Cock, and after his move to Brussels in 1563, his interest in both the subject matter and the format of such works waned appreciably.

Bruegel's career in Antwerp must also have been affected by his friendship with Abraham Ortelius, although here the influence is much harder to pin-point. The two men were probably introduced by Dirck Coornhert, another of Cock's engravers. Both Ortelius and Coornhert were members of the 'Family of Love', a quasi-religious sect that skated on dangerously thin theological ice. Although conforming to the outward forms of the Catholic church, members of the Family believed that the individual should enjoy a personal relationship with God, without the mediation of the Church and without recourse to the traditional ceremonies of faith. They preached tolerance, humility, and the avoidance of sin.

There is no conclusive evidence to prove that Bruegel was a member of this sect, but several features of his work betray a sympathy for its ideals. His disapproval of the excesses of both Protestantism and Catholicism was nowhere stressed more eloquently than in his late masterpiece, The Parable of the Blind, where the figure with the lute (a punning reference to Lutheranism) has already fallen in the ditch and is soon to be followed by a Catholic prominently displaying his trappings of a rosary and a crucifix.

drawing of bosch by pieter bruegel the elder

Homage to Bosch:
This engraving after a Bruegel drawing was published in 1557 with an inscription saying the 'inventor' was Hieronymus Bosch. This was an attempt by Bruegel's publisher to cash in on the popularity of Bosch's weird fantasies.

An Intellectual Friendship

The only known comment on Bruegel by an acquaintance is contained in the Album Amicorum (Album of Friends) of the geographer and cartographer Abraham Ortelius (1527-98). Writing four years after Bruegel's death, Ortelius described his friend as 'the most perfect painter of his century. Bruegel's acceptance in the circle of a man of such high standing gives the lie to the idea that he was just a country yokel. Ortelius' tribute tells us that Bruegel 'was snatched away from us in the flower of his age. Whether I should attribute this to Death who may have thought him older than he was on account of his supreme skill in the art, or rather to Nature who feared that his genius for dexterous imitation would bring her into contempt, I cannot say.'

picture of abraham ortelius world map

A portable world:
This world map is typical of the clarity and beauty of Ortelius' publications. His most famous work was Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the Orb of the Earth), first published in 1570, which contained 70 maps. A friend wrote that Ortelius had 'made the world portable'.

portrait of abraham ortelius

A great cartographer:
Ortelius trained as an engraver and turned to map-making under the influence of his friend Gerardus Mercator, the famous geographer. He wrote several learned geographical books and was a widely respected figure.


In 1562, Bruegel visited Amsterdam, where he executed drawings of the city gates, and the following year he settled in Brussels with his new bride, Mayken, who was aged about 19. We know very little about Bruegel's wife; she was the daughter of his former master, Pieter Coecke, and Van Mander tells us that Bruegel (often carried her about in his arms when she was a little girl. Van Mander also informs us that the move to Brussels was forced on Bruegel by his mother-in-law, Mayken Verhulst Bessemer because she wanted him to be firmly separated from a woman in Antwerp with whom he had had an earlier romantic entanglement.

Whatever the reason for his move, it was a crucial one. Brussels presented him with new challenges and new opportunities, and in the last six years of his life there, Bruegel found his most important patrons and produced his greatest paintings. Where Antwerp had been a prosperous commercial centre, the spirit of his new home was both political and aristocratic. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had chosen the palace of the Dukes of Brabant for his ceremonial abdication in 1555 and his son Philip II, King of Spain, continued to use the city as his administrative base.

picture of brussels

A prosperous capital:
In Bruegel's time, Brussels was a flourishing city of about 50,000 inhabitants. Its imposing buildings reflected its status as the political capital of the Netherlands.

A Dynasty of Painters

Bruegel's two sons were only infants when he died and they were reputedly taught painting by their grandmother, Mayken Verhulst Bessemers. Both sons spelled their name 'Brueghel, although their fate had dropped the 'h' from his signature in about 1559. They both had until painter's sons and further descendants carried on the family tradition well in the 18th century, though without any great distinction.

hell and fires painting by pieter bruegel the younger

'Hell Brueghel:
Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) is best known for his copies and imitations of his father's peasant scenes, but he also painted scenes of Hell and fires, which earned him the nickname 'Hell Brueghel'. Like his brother Jan, he worked mainly in Antwerp.

velvet bruegel flower painting

'Velvet Brueghel:
Jan Brueghel (1568-1625) is known as 'Velvet Brueghel' because of his extraordinary skill in painting delicate textures. He specialized in flower paintings and lush landscapes and often painted pieces in the work of other artists


It was in Brussels that some echoes of Italian trends finally found their way into Bruegel's art. Perhaps this was due to the example of Raphael's famous tapestry cartoons, which he could have seen there. These designs, among the most grandiose works of the High Renaissance, were sent to Brussels to serve as models for tapestries to be woven for the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and they had an enormous influence on Flemish artists. It is more probable, though, that Bruegel was meeting the demands of his new clientèle by producing work that was more in tune with current taste. He gradually abandoned his taste for panels crowded with incident, concentrating instead on single themes, using just a few, solidly-built figures.

Bruegel also recaptured his enthusiasm for landscape, which had seemingly been stifled during his time with Cock. In 1565, he received his largest commission, when the wealthy banker Niclaes Jonghelinck ordered a series of pictures depicting the months of the year. Only five of these now survive and despite the rapid brushwork and the thin paint surface, which suggest that Bruegel was working hurriedly, these rank among his finest achievements. Hunters in the Snow, in particular, with its masterly sense of space, became a model for future portrayals of winter scenes in the Low Countries.

Bruegel's stay in Brussels coincided with a period of immense political unrest and, not unnaturally, frequent attempts have been made to find some reflection of the Revolt of the Netherlands in the artist's works. However, Bruegel's art is essentially conservative in outlook and it must be remembered that he relied for much of his patronage upon important figures in the establishment. The much-despised Cardinal Granvelle was an ardent collector of his works, while Jonghelinck, who owned 16 of Bruegel's paintings, was a personal friend of Philip II and would have been equally sensitive, no doubt, to disapproval from official circles.

Many of the works which have been linked with the atrocities of the Duke of Alva, the Spanish governor of the Netherlands - The Massacre of the Innocents for example - actually pre-date the events they are supposed to represent and it is only in his last paintings that some hint of the troubles can be detected.

In his final years, Bruegel returned to the depiction of proverbs, recasting them as monumental scenes of grand tragedy. The overriding mood was one of bleak pessimism. All the parties concerned were blinkered by fanaticism, complacency, and self-interest. The blind was, indeed, leading the blind.

As has often been reflected in the aura surrounding many artists since Bruegel's reputation increased enormously after his death in September 1569 and when, three years later, Cardinal Granvelle sought to replace the paintings he had lost during the rebellion, he found the prices prohibitive. Among painters, too, there was immense respect and it was fitting that when Jan Brueghel eventually chose a painting to adorn his parents' tomb, he selected a work by Rubens, one of Bruegel's greatest admirers and spiritual heir.

portrait of cardinal antoine de granvelle

A powerful patron:
Cardinal Antoine de Granvelle, the chief counselor to Margaret of Austria, Philip II's regent in the Netherlands, owned several of Bruegel's paintings. He was a hated symbol of foreign oppression and the discontent he aroused was one of the causes of the revolt against Spanish rule. Granville himself did not witness the revolt as Philip, aware of his unpopularity, recalled him to Spain in 1564.

christ giving the keys to st peter painting by peter paul rubens

A tribute from Rubens:
Peter Paul Rubens, the greatest Flemish artist of the 17th century, painted this picture of Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter that formerly adorned Bruegel's tomb in Notre Dame de la Chapelle, Brussels. Rubens was a great admirer of Bruegel and owned several paintings by him.


The Ways of the World

Throughout every stage of his career, Bruegel was a narrative painter, using elaborate imagery and everyday incident to comment on the human condition.

Bruegel's greatness is so widely acknowledged today that it is hard to imagine that in his own time his supremacy was not recognized. He was immensely popular, but many contemporaries regarded his work as old-fashioned - mainly because Bruegel refused to be diverted by the innovations which his fellow countrymen had been bringing into the Netherlands from Italy during the previous 50 years.

Bruegel's art was a development of older trends in neighbouring Flanders. More than a century earlier, the so-called 'Primitive' painters of Bruges had started depicting Biblical themes as scenes of contemporary life, with everyday objects used symbolically to underline the true meaning of the occasion. Bruegel favored a similar narrative approach but, in keeping with his cultured, humanist background, chose to depict secular rather than religious themes, emphasizing the follies of mankind rather than the rewards or punishments awaiting them in the next world.

Much of Bruegel's early imagery was inherited. From Bosch, there came a legacy of hellish creatures that derived ultimately from manuscript illuminations or the carved grotesques on choirstalls. To modern eyes, these may seem like visionary fantasies, but to a contemporary they could - quite literally - be read, like flamboyant hieroglyphics.

the temptation of saint anthony drawing by pieter bruegel the elder

The Temptation of Saint Anthony:
Published in 1556, this is one of the earliest engravings of a Bruegel design. The subject is the popular legend of Saint Anthony stoically resisting the temptations and devilish lures sent to assail him. The imagery is a mixture of nightmarish creatures reminiscent of Bosch, traditional symbolism and proverbs. Hence the rotting fish and the oneeyed head symbolize the decay and corruption of the church and state.

wedding dance in the open air by pieter bruegel the elder

Wedding Dance in the Open Air (1566):
In later works, Bruegel moves away from abstract symbolism and shows man's vices in everyday terms. Here the dancers portray the sin of lust, for which the wedding is a pretext.

pieter bruegel the elder self portrait drawing

The Artist and the Connoisseur (1566-68):
This pen-and-ink drawing is a presumed self-portrait of the artist at work. His fierce concentration is highlighted by the fatuous expression of the unknown collector.

the misanthrope painting by pieter bruegel the elder

The Misanthrope (1568):
A new pessimism is evident in Bruegel's last works. Here an old man & mourns the faithless world, represented by the thief in the globe, while the blue coat symbolizes his own self-deceit.


However, Bruegel increasingly drew inspiration from the strong undercurrent of popular literature that had developed since the introduction of printing. At the forefront of this tradition were the compilations of proverbs and moralizing anecdotes, taken from the Scriptures or the classics, which served effectively as laymen's Bibles.

By far the most influential of these collections was Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools. First published in 1494, the book was still popular in Bruegel's day and, because of its numerous woodcut illustrations, made an enormous impression on contemporary artists. Brant's success spawned a host of similar works, not least the Adages of Erasmus, the celebrated Dutch humanist.

Bruegel reaped a rich harvest from sources such as these. Their influence is most obvious in works such as Netherlandish Proverbs, where individual illustrations of human foolishness are colorfully and exhaustively cataloged. But it can also, be seen in mythological and biblical paintings like The Fall of Icarus and The Parable of the Blind.

Other sources of visual inspiration were the festivities of the rederijkkamer or chambers of rhetoric, which organized processions with Christian or allegorical tableaux and outdoor performances of farces and morality play. The spirit of these was captured in the panel Carnival and Lent, where the principal characters were embodied by satirical floats with their processions.

The vast majority of Bruegel's large-scale paintings were executed on oak panels - a long-established tradition that required laborious preparation and priming of size and gesso. During the early 16th century the gessoed panel gradually gave way to canvas, and oil began to replace tempera (ground pigments mixed with egg rather than oil). Bruegel's career occurred during a transitional stage in this development, and although most of his paintings are worked in oil on panels, he also painted in tempera on canvas. Only a handful of canvases have survived, the most notable being late works such as The Parable of the Blind and The Misanthrope.

two monkeys painting by pieter bruegel the elder

Two monkeys (1562):

This painting of two chained monkeys is an unusual subject for Bruegel. It may be a comment on man's base nature. Through the arched window, there is a distant view of the port of Antwerp.

the parable of the blind by pieter bruegel the elder

The Parable of the Blind (1568):
The theme of blindness recurs throughout Bruegel's work. Based on Matthew 15:14, 'And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch', this painting is a terrible image of fatality, not only of the blind men, but of all those who are blind to true religion – symbolized by the church in the background. Bruegel's acute powers of observation are apparent in the precise representation of different kinds of blindness, which have been identified. This man is suffering from atrophy of the eyeball.

the parable of the blind by pieter bruegel the elder


With his move to Brussels in 1563, Bruegel's work acquired a new eloquence. His new patrons there were not to be satisfied with densely-packed panels that were, in effect, outsize versions of prints. Gradually his paintings became less cluttered and the slight, semi-articulated figures of his early works were replaced with robust, corporeal peasants, full of individuality. This was due in the main to the dramatic improvements in his draughtsmanship, which seemed to be influenced by his increased study of Italian art.

More important was the series of naer het leven (from life) drawings, which date from this period. These masterly studies of peasants, soldiers, and tradesmen reveal a new conviction in their strength of line and appreciation of volume. Carefully finished in chalk, pen, and ink, their detail suggests they were finished in the studio; even so, they demonstrate that Bruegel was taking a direct interest in human subjects, rather than just working from print sources.

from life peasants drawing by pieter brugele the elder

Studies from life:
During the 1560s Bruegel made numerous sketches of peasants and townspeople. Although none of them can be identified as models for figures in his paintings, the detailed notes which accompany mаnу оf thет suggest that they may have been used to reinforce his memory when painting clothing and equipment.


Winter Landscapes

The Flemish landscape tradition goes back to the early 1300s and the illustrated devotional manuals known as the Books of Hours. Bruegel drew on this tradition in his series of paintings depicting The Months, which included his memorable winter landscape Hunters in the Snow - one of the first large-scale pictures to deal with landscape and nature in its own right. Other winter village scenes anticipated the work of the 17th-century Dutch painter Hendrick Avercamp.

winter scene, skaters by hendrick avercamp

Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634) Winter Scene, Skaters:
This deaf and dumb painter specialized in delicate winter scenes. Colorful figures skating on a frozen lake create a vivid impression of a cold winter's day.

les tres riches henures du duc de berri by the limbourg brothers

The Limbourg brothers (died c.1416) Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berri: February:
This Book of Hours is illustrated by appropriate scenes from contemporary life.


Van Mander related the story of how Bruegel and a friend called Hans Franckert used to disguise themselves as peasants and steal into the countryside to observe rustic weddings and fairs unseen. The tale may well be apocryphal but was probably suggested by sketches such as these. Certainly, it was in Bruegel's later paintings that his figure studies paid their greatest dividends.

In works like The Peasant Dance, for example, he achieved his most successful synthesis of naturalism and lay preaching. At first glance, the picture may seem like a faithful portrayal of harmless merry-making, but in fact, it is a reworking of an old theme: man's sins and the neglect of religion. The church and the shrine on the right lie abandoned, the leading dancer steps blindly on a cross of straw, and symbols of most of the vices are readily apparent. As a naturistically presented piece of moralizing, this set an example for the Dutch genre painters of succeeding generations.


Netherlandish Proverbs

Proverbs and figures of speech were popular subjects for illustration in Bruegel's time, and a constant theme in his own work. Nowhere are they treated in such an obvious or encyclopedic way as in this painting, where a whole village acts out over 100 different adages and expressions (which are translated in the key below). These fall into two groups - those which show the absurdity of human behavior, such as the figure carrying baskets of light into the sunshine (5), and those which demonstrate sinfulness, such as the woman wrapping a blue cloak around her husband, symbolizing her adultery. Bruegel may have modeled the painting on a contemporary engraving by Frans Hogenberg, which bears the inscription "This is generally called the Blue Cloak, but it would be better named The World's Follies'. This alternative title could equally well be applied to Bruegel's work, which is essentially an instructive commentary on the ridiculous spectacle of human life.

netherlandish proverbs by pieter bruegel the elder
netherlandish proverbs by pieter bruegel the elder

1. The sow removes the spigot To make a pig of oneself,

2. He butts his head against the wall To bang one head against a brick wall

netherlandish proverbs by pieter bruegel

3. Don't count your chickens before they hatch

4. He speaks out of two mouths
To be two-faced

5. He carries baskets of light into the sunshine
To take coals to Newcastle

6. One holds the distaff while the other spins
It takes two to gossip

netherlandish proverbs by pieter bruegel

7. He opens the door with his bottom
He doesn't know whether he's coming or going

8. He kills two flies with one blow
To kill two birds with one stone

9. He doesn't care whose house is burning as long as he can warm himself from the coals
I'm all right Jack

10. He throws money into the water
To throw money down the drain

netherlandish proverbs by pieter bruegel

11. To poke a stick into the wheel
To put a spoke in the wheel

12. He who spills his gruel can't pick it all up
It's no use crying over spilled milk

13. He cannot reach from one loaf to the other
He cannot make ends meet

14. They pull for the long piece
To draw straws/pull the wishbone

the blue cloak by frans hogenberg

The Blue Cloak:
This engraving by Frans Hogenberg was probably the immediate source for Bruegel's painting, which was known by the same name for many years. Bruegel replaced the abstract landscape with a realistic village setting and increased the number of proverbs from 40 to over a hundred.


Bruegel painted in an age when art served a moral purpose and his narrative paintings reflect this tradition. The Fall of Icarus is Bruegel's only work with a mythological subject. Like Netherlandish Proverbs, it symbolizes the follies of mankind.

The Haymakers, The Corn Harvest, and Hunters in the Snow are probably his most celebrated works. These panoramic landscapes depict the months of the year in terms of man's relationship with nature.

The Massacre of the Innocents is one of a number of winter scenes with religious themes. As in his previous works, the artist looks down on the tiny figures from above. A biblical story also forms the basis of The Conversion of St Paul, but this time a low viewpoint is adopted. A similar angle is also used in The Wedding Feast and The Peasant Dance, where it is accompanied by a striking change in scale. The figures here are shown close-up, with a new monumentality that gives these paintings of peasant life a particular immediacy and vigor.

the fall of lcarus by pieter bruegel

The Fall of Icarus c.1558-66:
The theme of this idyllic painting is the mythological tale of Icarus, who fell to his death after flying too close to the sun. Bruegel transforms the legend by showing Icarus after he has fallen into the sea (only his legs are visible) and the plowman, the shepherd, and the fisherman work on, oblivious to his fate. An eloquent portrayal of the futility of ambition, the work also shows man's blindness to the world.

haymaking by pieter bruegel

Haymaking 1565:
One of a series of five pictures depicting The Months, this magnificent painting is thought to represent july. The tranquil landscape pulses with the activity of haymakers and fruit harvesters hard at work.

the conversion of st paul by pieter bruegel

The Conversion of St Paul:
This biblical story is set in a magnificent mountain landscape, which must have been
inspired by Bruegel's journey through the Alps. Seen through the eyes of a foot-soldier, the principal event is obscured and reduced to a tiny detail at the centre of the composition. The work may be an allusion to the Duke of Alva's crossing of the Alps in 1567, but it can also be interpreted as being symbolic of man's
strivings to find true faith.


Peasant Life

The Netherlandish peasants of Bruegel's day had a harsh but relatively prosperous existence. While they toiled endlessly for a small reward, they celebrated and feasted on a lavish scale.

In 1500 the Dutch scholar Erasmus fondly described his fellow countrymen as having 'a straightforward nature, without treachery or deceit, and not prone to any serious vices, except that it is a little given to pleasure, especially of feasting'. He attributed this to the wonderful supply of everything which can tempt them to enjoyment, due largely to the wealth and fertility of the region. Bruegel's paintings of peasants carousing at carnival time or celebrating another fruitful harvest, reflect this lighter aspect of peasant life.


Erasmus could have used the same words to describe the inhabitants of other provinces in the Low Countries - particularly Flanders and Brabant. By contemporary West-European standards, many people were indeed prosperous and well-fed, living off a lush, fertile land. But, as Bruegel also revealed in his pictures just 50 years later, there was another, darker side to their lives. The poor and sick generally had to fend for themselves, and violence was never far away. This was a time when the torture, execution and mutilation of criminals provided mass entertainment; when attacks by bandits and marauding soldiers were a constant threat; and when a drunken peasant would not think twice before reaching for his knife in a brawl.

In the Low Countries, few people lived far from a town - in fact, in Flanders and Brabant, almost two-thirds of the population lived in towns. But the peasants' world rarely extended beyond their village and the surrounding fields. Everything they knew about the large urban centres such as Antwerp, Amsterdam and Bruges was learnt from the Catholic village priest or the travelling entertainers, merchants and small traders who occasionally passed by.


Villages were small - few had more than 200 to 600 inhabitants -- and people lived, together with their livestock, in small thatched huts made of wood and mud. In the centre of each village was the parish church and, often, a tavern. A little apart from the rest of the buildings stood the lord's manor house.

The lord owned all the surrounding land but the better-off peasants had the customary right to lease and till a share of it. In return, they had to give the lord some of their products and perhaps work on his 'demesne' - the area which the lord kept for himself. The less fortunate peasants had no customary rights to arable land and either they leased it on an annual basis or they hired out their services to others. All peasants usually had the right to graze their animals on the common pasture or the village's area of wasteland.

The arable land was not divided into small fields surrounded by hedges and fences, but into narrow strips barely wide enough for oxen or horse-drawn plows. Traditionally, each peasant had a number of such strips, not together but scattered far and wide, on a mixture of fertile and infertile land. In much of Western Europe, the strips were divided among three fields, one of which was left fallow while the other two were used for growing wheat, rye, barley, millet, and oats - crops which were needed as much for the brewing of beer as for the making of bread. However, the disadvantages of the inefficient three-field system had been recognized by the wealthier peasants of the Low Countries long before the 16th century. Many had acquired the right to farm adjoining strips and they now grew an increasing variety of crops.

peasant wedding by pieter brueghel the younger

Riotous feasting:
The peasants seized any opportunity for merrymaking. Indeed, wedding feasts attracted so many villagers, that in 1546 an Imperial decree was issued, limiting the guests to 20.

peasants merrymaking before a country house by van uden and tenier 2nd

The lord's domain:
The lord's manor stood a little apart from the rest of the village, in its own extensive grounds. The peasants' relationship with the gentleman landowners was, on the whole, amicable, as long as they were granted a degree of self-sufficiency and their routine remained unchanged.


They grew hemp and flax and plants which provided dyes, such as woad, for the cloth-making industry. The linen industry in particular was beginning to flourish in Brabant, where it provided peasants with a means of supplementing their income by spinning or weaving in the home. The more enterprising farmers also grew hops for beer, turnips, peas, and beans and they adopted the practice - advanced for the times - of spreading, manure on the fields.

The harvesting of the crops was an activity in which all of the community joined in. The men cut the corn while the women gathered it up and carried it to waiting wagons. The whole community also helped to harvest hay and gather fruit and nuts, which were in plentiful supply in the Low Countries. Many kinds of fruit are grown', wrote an Italian resident, but 'except for many varieties of pears and apples which are excellent ... the fruits lack the fragrance and flavour that they possess in Italy'.

the harvest by pieter bruegel the elder

Harvest time:
In August, the whole community participated in the harvest – the most important event of the agricultural year. The men scythed the corn while the women gathered it into bundles, carrying it on their backs to horse-drawn wagons. If the harvest was bad, the peasants went hungry for the following year.

two tax gatherers by marinus van reymerswaele

Prey to tax collectors:
The peasants paid heavy taxes to the state, as well as rents and tithes to the Lord and the church. All in all, between 20 and 40 percent of their produce was consumed in this way.


In Holland, dairy cattle grazing in lush pastures were a familiar sight. Holland had once been an impoverished region of bogs and marshes, but by organizing themselves into district committees the more wealthy peasants had managed to transform the landscape. With the help of watermills, sluices, and dikes they had created a fertile land of pastures and arable fields. The oxen were huge and produced an enormous amount of milk, while the horses were large, heavy-headed animals, ideal for agricultural tasks.

Life was governed by the seasons, and the calendar was still seen in terms of each month's rural activity. August, for instance, was harvest time, while in February the peasants gathered wood for their fires. Summer, according to the Italian resident, was delightful because the heat is usually not too severe and flies and gnats do not get in the nose very much. Winter, however, was invariably 'long and stormy' and the coastland was racked by gales. It was a hard life, and the average life expectancy was only 30 to 35 years. Up to 50 percent of children died in their first year, and those who survived were expected to assume an adult role from a very early age. They were dressed in adult clothing and sent into the fields.

market day by pieter brueghel the younger

Market day:
When the grain had been harvested it was distributed among the peasants – but only after the lord and the church had claimed their portion. The peasants then sold their produce in the village market-place, filling large baskets with bread and giant kegs with beer.


For most peasants, there was not only the fear of death - the communities were riddled with the disease - but also famine. An excessively cold or wet spell could wipe out a year's crop-indeed, 1566 became known as a 'Year of Hunger'. And if the weather was kind, there was always the danger that their crops would be seized by bandits or soldiers from France or Spain.

These two countries treated Flanders as their primary battleground in their struggle for supremacy. Even after the signing of a peace treaty in 1559, there was little respite, for Philip of Spain was determined to rule the Low Countries with an iron hand.

Living as they did under the constant threat of disaster, the peasants felt that they were at the mercy of supernatural powers. Every setback was considered to be the work of demons, witches, werewolves, and the spirits of the dead, all of whom had to be appeased through spiritual acts.

The Church, of course, represented the greatest power of all and had an enormous hold over the peasants in both their spiritual and daily life. Each year it collected tithes which mounted to about 10 percent of everything they produced. It also provided them with days of rest, or holy days, when occasions such as the Assumption of the Virgin or the Feast of the Circumcision were celebrated. In cities like Antwerp, the celebrations took the form of huge processions in which the religious orders, craftsmen, and merchants marched to the music of pipes and drums. There were floats on which scenes from the New Testament were enacted or boys and girls stood dressed in the robes of saints.

the witch of malleghem by pieter bruegel the elder

Fools and quackery:
'Witches' and healers played on the ignorance and superstition of the peasants (often in open competition with the clergy). This engraving by Bruegel shows a man being cured of a brain tumor: the old woman holds a stone up which she has supposedly cut out of his head.


In the villages, the holy day celebrations were a much quieter affair. The festivals that the peasants most looked forward to were determined by the seasons and the agricultural cycle. The summer solstice (24-29 June) was a particularly riotous occasion when the malevolent spirits were expelled. And provided the harvest was good, there was always a big celebration in early enforced idleness. This was the time when the granaries were full and the animals which could not be kept through the winter were slaughtered, music and dancing, and liberal quantities of beer would be consumed. For a few hours at least, the peasants could forget their hard daily life.

the peasants holy feast days

Holy feast day:
The peasants always kept holy festivals, including the feast of St Nicholas Eve (5 December). As St Nicholas was the patron saint of children, the young ones were given baskets and stockings filled with gifts.

dordrecht-zierikzee by drik dalens

The winter:
In winter, the land could not be worked so the peasants hunted for food, gathered wood for their fires, or amused themselves by skating on the frozen lakes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *