The Parable of the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Parable of the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1568)

Yesterday when I featured the painting by John Singer Sargent, entitled Gassed, I was immediately reminded of a painting by one of my favourite artists, the Flemish genius, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  His painting was entitled The Parable of the Blind and he completed it in 1568 a year before his death.   Breugel at the time of the painting was about forty three years of age.  His date of death is known to be 1569 but his date of birth is only approximated as being between 1525 and 1530.  He was by the time he completed this work of art a well established and well respected painter.

The title of Bruegel’s painting derives from a passage in the New Testament (Matthew 15:14) in which Christ is comparing spiritual blindness to physical blindness and talking about inner blindness to religion of some people.   It all came about as Jesus had told his disciples that it was not necessary to wash hands before eating. This remark was overheard by the Scribes and Pharisees and they were infuriated, as it was a patent infringement of Jewish law. When the disciples reported this to Jesus, he replied:

“…They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch….”

Before us we see a line of six men walking along a dirt track.  They are a bunch of unkempt, unshaven peasants.  They are painted in a frieze-like procession and the line of men surges diagonally, top left to bottom right of the painting which otherwise had been beautifully balanced both horizontally and vertically.   They move together in a group ensuring they do not lose contact with each other as they can be seen holding the same stick in pairs or in some cases each has a hand on the shoulder of the man in front.  However their strategy did not work and we see that the leading blind man has fallen into a ditch and the second man in the line is now tripping over his fallen leader.

The second man

Look at the fear in the face of the second man as starts to fall.  As we look at the figures we know that their forward motion is unstoppable and we are all fully aware of what is likely to happen next.  The fallen leading man and the stumbling of the next two disrupt the calm and tranquil Brabant landscape.

I love how Bruegel has depicted the expressions on the men’s faces.  The mouth of the second man is open and he is probably shouting out a curse as he stumbles over the legs of the leader who lies on his back in the ditch bemoaning his fate.  The third man has a look of horror on his face as he feels the stick he is holding with the second man is suddenly tugged forward.  The three men at the rear have yet to stumble but are no doubt alarmed by the cries from their forward colleagues.

The fourth man blindly looking to heaven

The fourth man looks upwards with blind eyes maybe praying for help.

The church in the background shows a likeness to the Sint-Anna church in the village of Sint-Anna-Pede but art historians do not believe that the background is an actual landscape but that Bruegel had painted and idealised landscape taking little bits of different locations and merging them.  Look closely at the line of men.  Look how there is a gap between the second and third man and in that gap we have a clear sight of the solidly-built church.  Was this intentional?  If so what meaning should we put on this aspect of the painting?  Could it be that the artist is comparing the solid structure of the church as a solid faith in God in comparison with those people who do not want to see or acknowledge God and this Bruegel depicts by painting the blind men stumbling along the path they have chosen, similar to the stumbling of people who choose a path in life without their God.?  We see the brilliance of Bruegel’s art as he depicts the men in various stages of falling and one must marvel at the expressions on the various men’s faces.  The expressions on the faces range from trust to surprise and shock.

The Pieter Brueghel the Younger version

It is a beautifully crafted painting and it is interesting to note that Bruegel’s elder son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, made a copy of his father’s painting soon after his father died.  The same six blind men stumble along, some of whom have been given lighter-coloured clothing and in this picture we see animals and fowl in the well preserved field in front of the church in comparison to the desolate looking field in his father’s painting.

The Peasant Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Peasant Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1567)

Today for My Daily Art Display, I return, after too long an absence,  to one of my favourite painters, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  I want to look at his painting the Peasant Dance which is not dated but thought to be a companion painting of the same size to Peasant Wedding, which he completed around 1567 and both of which illustrated peasant life.  This is an example of his later work which is characterised by his use of monumental Italianate figures.  This painting can be found in the Kunsthistoriches Museum Vienna.   There is a very similar painting by Bruegel in the Institute of Arts, Detroit which is entitled The Wedding Dance in the Open Air, the main difference between the two is that the Detroit version has more figures in it making it a more crowded scene. 

But I start with a poem by the American poet; William Carlos Williams entitled The Dance, which sums up the painting, the setting of which is the village fair (La Kermess).

In Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess,

the dancers go round, they go round and

around, the squeal and ther blare and the

tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles

tipping their bellies (round as the thick-

sided glasses whose wash they impound)

their hips and their bellies off balance

to turn them.  Kicking and rolling about

 the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those

shanks must be sound to bear up under such

rollicking measures, prance as they dance

in Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess.


The Peasant Dance, along with Peasant Wedding are thought to be the most outstanding examples of Breugel’s late style and are personified by his use of enormous figures.   Bruegel the Elder was well known for his peasant scenes, so much so, he was often referred to as “Peasant Bruegel”.  Bruegel specialised in genre paintings which depicted peasants at work and at play.  From his paintings we came to understand more about village life of that time and the about the peasants who inhabited them – how they ate, how they dressed, how they hunted and as is the case of today’s painting, how they relaxed and celebrated.  He never sentimentalised the life of the peasant folk as they got on with their life and his portraits were a great source of evidence regarding both the physical and social aspects of 16th century life in the Netherlands.  Bruegel pioneered the painting of ordinary life and although he was not of “peasant-class”, he would associate with the peasants so as to understand their lifestyle which he then painted.

The picture is about a dance at a fair which is being held in the village square outside an inn.  This picture of a dance is in sharp contrast to the paintings featuring the courtly settings of formal dances where everybody is dressed in their finest clothes.  Here we see a scene of rural merriment reflecting sixteenth century custom.  It is an actual point in the celebrations – the opening of a Kermesse, or village fair with a traditional dance performed by two couples.  The large couple in the foreground appear to be hurrying to the dance whilst we observe further back two other couple lost in the joys of the dance.  If we look at the house with the banner, to the left side of the background, we can see a man trying to coax (or is it drag!) a reluctant woman towards the dancing.

Bruegel in this painting has once again put a moral slant on what he depicts.  This is not just a humorous picture recording village life.  Gluttony, lust and anger can all be seen in this painting.   Look at the man seated next to the bagpipe player.  He looks drunkenly at the bagpipe player trying to offer him a jug of ale.   See how he has a peacock feather in his hair.  This is symbolic of vanity and pride.   Bruegel also draws our attention to the fact that although this is a “saint’s day”  he has depicted the dancers having turned their backs on the church and take little notice of the picture of the Virgin which hangs from the tree. 

Three men arguing

The positioning of the tavern in the foreground and all that is going on around the table clearly shows that the peasants are engrossed with material things rather than spiritual issues.   An animated conversation between three men is taking place at the table.   One of them stretches out his hand to another on the extreme left but probably due to an excess of alcohol, he knocks his neighbour in the face.

Two small females

There are two strange figures in the left foreground.  They are two small females.  I have heard these being described as a mother and child even though the size of the one seated would be completely wrong.  However it should be noted that children often dressed like smaller versions of their parents and these could be two children.

Bottle of Bruegel beer


Finally this excellent work of art has been the inspiration for Bruegel Belgian Amber Ale from Brewery Van Steenberge. The 5.2 percent alcohol by volume beer has a scene from The Peasant Dance on the label.  So you see, Bruegel is still making his mark on today’s society !

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.

Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Netherlandish Proverbs by Peter Bruegel the Elder

I have a large framed print of this painting on my dining room wall and it is often the subject of many conversations of the diners sat around the table. I saw the original painting when I visited the Staatliche Museen in Berlin many years ago and was fascinated by the amount of activity going on within the painting.   Along with the print of the painting which I bought there was a small black and white copy of the picture on which the various parts of the scene were numbered so that one could look along the corresponding number on a list of proverbs the painting was depicting. This has been a God-send when viewers of my print have tried to work out the possible meanings of the various scenes.
The painting depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish proverbs some of which are not in use any more or have somewhat lost their meaning when translated into English.  More than a hundred proverbs and idiomatic expressions have been identified describing “topsy-turvy” ways of behaviour.   This explains the other name occasionally given the painting, that of The Topsy-Turvy World.