God and the Devil in the Details

The busy worlds depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder are brimming with life and questions

Top Stories | Alice Miller | December 2013 / January 2014

High above, a raven sits atop a medieval torture wheel, scraps of rags still hanging from the last victim.

On the ground, a man in white stands watching, as a vast procession moves across a green and brown plain.

In the middle of the procession, if you peer closely, you can see Christ carrying the cross; in the foreground lies a slim animal skull.

Here are literally thousands of details contained in Pieter Bruegel’s The Procession to Calvary.

The man in white who watches the scene is thought to be the artist himself, looking out at the complex, character-fi lled world he created.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder died at age 44 in 1569 and this year – if we go with the likeliest birth year – it is 444 years since.

A little symmetry. Here in Vienna, the Kunsthistorisches Museum has around a third of Bruegel’s paintings, the largest collection in the world.

Nearly five centuries after he died, there are still countless reasons to watch the man who watches.


Leap-frog, knucklebones, wrestling

Events in Bruegel paintings – Christ carrying the cross, Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem, the conversion of Paul – are often surrounded by crowds of hundreds of individuals, all wrapped in their own lives.

Dr. Björn Blauensteiner, curator of the KHM’s Bruegel collection, shows me that while, say, The Procession to Calvary follows many of the traditions of Flemish painting, it’s also "Bruegelised" with features like "little discursive scenes which don’t really have anything to do with the Biblical stories of carrying the cross – like those children jumping over that muddy pond."

My first experience of Bruegel was in a poem, WH Auden’s "Musée des Beaux Arts". The poem considers the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which has since been realised was misattributed to Bruegel.

But it was thought to be his work in part because the theme is so typical – a momentous event that goes by almost unnoticed.

In the painting, Icarus’ death is represented simply by his legs disappearing into the ocean, an irrelevant event for the other characters who inhabit the painting, the pony, the ploughman, the shepherd, the ships, the distant city – "everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster".

Bruegel’s paintings are so often peopled: in Children’s Games, we see kids playing leap-frog, knucklebones, doing handstands; over 80 different "games" are featured, including wrestling, and a crowd of children surrounding a single boy and pull his hair.

Bruegel’s work often prompts questions: How do we feel about the prominence of cruelty in these games? Why do the children look like adults? And is there a particular reason why the character in the house above wears a mask?


The Bible set in Antwerp

In The Tower of Babel, a vast tower looms; its left façade appears polished, complete.

Scaffolding shows a work in progress. In the middle, however, the stone erodes, and a path smudges down to the water.

The green city in the background resembles Antwerp; as is common in Bruegel, the biblical story is costumed in the painter’s contemporary world.

In the painter’s Antwerp, there was plenty of political unrest, and discussions about greed and the misuse of money. So the painting can be seen as a critique of proto-capitalism.

Still, this is "only one way to read it", Blauensteiner stresses. And read does seem to be the appropriate verb. Bruegel is writing rich, complex, and ambiguous stories for us. Interpretations "shimmer through".

The curator points to the left part of the tower; it’s solid, successful.

Perhaps the stonemasons wanted to please the king, who stands to the left of the tower, blind to the tower’s problemns.

Perhaps they are cunning, and have cheated the king. If you look closely, Bruegel’s signature is on one of the stones; he himself is one of the masons.


Like the roots of this tree

While Bruegel’s ideas are endlessly intriguing, his technical mastery can’t be overlooked. While Bruegel was "a very smart artist, he is also such a great painter!"

Again, the curator is animated: "You can see that he knows how to use the brush to create an optical illusion – and it’s even more so in the landscapes…" We head across the room to The Return of the Herd.

"It’s like he has two modes: this very precise, very graphic style; and then these painterly methods – tricks almost, like the roots of this tree – that are almost Impressionist… but if you step back, they look completely real."


Reflecting societies

We know almost nothing about Bruegel the man.

Before he became a painter, he was successful designing engravings for the publisher Hieronymus Cock, and so his paintings were most likely commissioned by patrons who wanted his work.

"This is why they’re so interesting to read and to write about and to interpret."

Instead of a Madonna with child, it’s more interesting to consider a painting "that isn’t clear".

Bruegel’s characters show his understanding of the individual within the crowd, of a society comprised of people concerned with their own priorities.

In this sense his work feels analogous to Tolstoy, or to George Eliot; Bruegel shows how a society functions and dysfunctions, and doesn’t pretend there are easy answers.

Today we say the devil’s in the details. But once, it was God – in a reminder that everything deserves our best.

In Bruegel, we find God, the devil, and all the characters in between.



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