The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Procession to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1564)

One of my very first offerings for My Daily Art Display was a painting by one of my favourite artists Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  Today I would like to revisit this artist and show you another of his paintings entitled The Procession to Calvary which he completed in 1564 and which now hangs in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.  This was probably the most complex composition of the Flemish painter.

This oil on oak panel painting was the largest known work of art by Bruegel the Elder, measuring 124cms x 170cms.  It is one of sixteen paintings by him which are listed in the inventory, drawn up in 1566, of the wealthy Antwerp collector, Niclaes Jonghelinck.  The composition is in some ways a traditional one.  It is the solemn religious event of Jesus bearing the cross on his way to Calvary where he is to be crucified.  However the story is transported into the time of Bruegel and by doing this the artist has given the subject of the painting an immediacy for his contemporaries as well as making a general valid statement about human actions.   It is not the Roman soldiers of Pontius Pilate that we see escorting Christ, but the mercenaries, in their bright-red tunics, who were in the service of Philip II of Spain, the ruler of Bruegel’s Netherlands. 

 When one first looks at the painting one does not know what to focus upon first.   It is a composition depicting Christ carrying the cross, as a semi-circular procession of incidental scenes set against a wide landscape crowded by tiny and animated figures.  Our eyes dart from scene to scene of this multi-faceted painting.  It is as if the painting invites us to look everywhere at once and not let our eyes loiter on one specific spot.   It is in some ways a chaotic scene, which one finds very bewildering.  It is typical of many of Bruegel’s paintings, which are usually filled with all types of characters.  There is a myriad of tiny figures rushing about, each with a task to be completed.   We are mesmerised as we try to see what each of the hundreds of figures is doing.  As we look at the bedlam we are drawn into it and become part of the crowd.   Some are arguing, some are fighting and as we look on we wonder what it is all about.  Our mind is in a whirl with all this hyper-activity.

The Mourners

So let me try and dissect the painting.   In the foreground, the sorrowful friends of Christ, standing on a small rocky crag, and are deliberately distanced by Bruegel from the hordes below.   These four figures, the Virgin Mary, John the Disciple and the two holy women, are larger in size than the rest and they are perched motionless and distraught above the chaotic goings-on below.  They are grief-stricken at what is going on behind them.  Saint John has moved to Mary, with her large blue veil.  Her face is pale and it seems as if she is about to collapse.  It is interesting to note that these two characters and those of the holy women are dressed in the clothes worn at the time of the crucifixion, whilst the rest of the figures, with the exception of Christ himself, are dressed in Flemish garments of Bruegel’s time.  Bruegel did this to give the painting a particular reference to his own day.

The Fallen Christ

Having let our eyes dart from scene to scene amongst the heaving mass our eyes try to find and focus on the figure of Jesus.  Our attention is drawn to the white horse and rider in the centre of the picture and then we see behind them the figure of Jesus who has fallen under the weight of the cross and is on one knee trying to raise himself up once again.  He is dressed in blue and yet for some reason it was hard for us to pick him out amongst the other characters.  Was that Breugel’s intention?  Did he purposely “hide” the figure of Jesus?  It is interesting to note that although Jesus is at the centre of the painting he is difficult to discern amongst the crowd.  His insignificance amongst the masses of people is a familiar device of Mannerist painting. 

Public executions were quite normal in 16th century life and especially in the troubled land of Flanders where Bruegel lived.  These macabre events were always well attended and had a carnival-type air to them.  I suppose that as such executions were carried out on a regular basis the onlookers became hardened and completely indifferent to the fear and misery of those being led to their death.   It is interesting to see that Bruegel has also added into his painting another regular happening at these events – pick-pocketing, as the crowds, in their excitement of seeing unfortunates being executed, were often oblivious to what was going on around them and were easy targets for the pickpockets.    

The two thieves

We see the two thieves sitting in a horse-driven cart being transported to their place of execution.   Their hands which hold a crucifix are tied in front of them and they look heavenwards beseeching for some divine mercy and at the same time babbling their final confessions to the cowled priests besides them.   The cart which trundles slowly on its way is surrounded by throngs of ghoulish spectators.


If we look to the upper right of the picture we see the mount of Golgotha and the two crosses already erected for the crucifixion of the two thieves.  Between them we can see men digging a hole into which the third cross, from which Christ will hang, is to be placed.  Crowds walk whilst others go on horseback towards this place so as to get a “ring-side” view of the forthcoming crucifixion.    As they move up the hill they pass through a landscape dotted with gallows on which corpses still hang and wheels to which fragments of cloth and remnants of broken bodies, not eaten by the ravens, still cling.

The sky to the left is blue and calm whereas the sky to the right over Golgotha is dark and storm-like and Bruegel’s landscape has us focusing on an impossible sheer rock outcrop atop of which perches a windmill.  Art historians differ on the significance of the windmill on this rocky structure.  However, impossibly sheer outcrops of rock characterize the landscape tradition of the Antwerp School founded by Joachim Patenier.

This is in some ways a moving painting with religious significance of Jesus on his long journey to his ultimate death.  However, as is the case in many of Bruegel’s painting, the animated antics of the numerous peasants depicted brings a smile to your face as you look to see what each individually painted character is doing.