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On Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526/30–1569) was a Flemish artist whose life remains shrouded in mystery. When and where he was born is unknown and he painted no confirmed self-portraits. But his art was of course shaped by the times in which he lived—times that were marked by conflict and cultural change, including the Inquisition, harsh rulership in the Netherlands under the Duke of Alba, and the recent Protestant Reformation next door in Germany. The latter brought with it a certain degree of rebellion and iconoclasm that were reflected in the art of this era, including that of Bruegel.

Central motifs in Bruegel’s work are urban environments and the peasantry, often portrayed from high viewpoints in order to magnify the surrounding, magnificent landscapes frequently present in his paintings. Although he spent his best years in Antwerp and Brussels painting for the cultural elite, Bruegel’s focus on commoners has led to scholars noting the “humanistic” nature of much of his oeuvre. However, Bruegel also painted religious works, and chief among them was the piece presented here, The Tower of Babel (1563), which is an oil painting on wood panels designed with intense precision.

The story of the Tower of Babel in biblical literature (specifically Genesis 11:1–9), is one that tells of a Babylonian attempt to build a tower “with its top to the heavens,” before God sabotages the project by confusing the language of the workers and making them unable to understand each other. One could interpret this tale as that of a spiteful God who feels insecure of human achievement, as some do, or as an explanation of how so many different peoples and languages became scattered “over the face of the whole earth,” as is also common. But it is difficult to deny the basic moral of the story, which is that the venture failed because of diversity.

Perhaps God wanted it that way. Perhaps nature is the way it is for a reason. Perhaps the Tower of Babel is best viewed as a lesson in how the greatest of plans will ultimately fail when you have too many different people undertaking a grand project fueled by an impossible ideal. You end up with a wreck few but a Flemish painter can make beauty out of.

c. 1555–1560. Oil on canvas, 73.5 x 112 cm. Königliche Museen der Schönen Künste, Brussels

The Bay of Naples is shown here with a wide-angle view from the end of the bay to the west of Naples to the notorious volcano of Vesuvius at the far right—glowing, burning and smoking. Naples itself is at the very centre of the composition, lying in a protected semicircular harbour that is recognizable even today. Important landmarks of the city can be seen from left to right: the Castel dell’Ovo on the island of Megaride on the left, the tower on the protruding Isolotto di San Vincenzo, the conspicuous facade of the Castel Nuovo with its three dominating towers and Castel Sant’Elmo on the hilltop further to the back.

Elke Oberthaler. Bruegel. Thames & Hudson (2018): 144.

c. 1555–1560. Oil on canvas, 73.5 x 112 cm. Königliche Museen der Schönen Künste, Brussels

Bruegel deliberately changed the message by painting Icarus as nobody else ever has. He does not use the rich, somber hues of the North, as was his wont, but instead deals in the radiant dawn colors of the Mediterranean world. A distant sun glows white on a blue-green sea, washing the white shapes of a distant city, silvering the masts of a stately ship whose sails are fat with wind. Like many other painters, Bruegel peopled the scene with characters ashore and afloat—a ship at sea, and on shore a plowman following his horse, an idle shepherd boy, an old fisherman.
One difference in Bruegel s vision of the scene is that Icarus himself is barely noticeable. He is shown just hitting the water, and his legs and a tiny splash are all that can be seen of him in the sea near the shore. But the most important difference of all is that everyone ignores his fall. The ploughman, the fisherman, the boy go casually about their affairs. Nobody is looking. By painting the picture in this eccentric way, Bruegel has transformed the myth into a proverb. Now its message, as one art historian put it, is, ‘A man dies, and the world hardly blinks.’

Timothy Foote. The World of Bruegel. Time-Life Books (1968): 149.

Armed Three Master with Daedalus and Icarus in the Sky (1561–1565)
Four-master and Two Three-masters Anchored near a Fortified Island from The Sailing Vessels (1561–1565)
Armed Four-Master Putting Out to Sea from The Sailing Vesselsca (1555–1556)

In this series of engravings, Bruegel depicts an impressive variety of ship types in various sea conditions. The artist must have drawn numerous preparatory studies, looking directly at the respective sailing boats, in order to create these meticulously executed ships that nearly fill their sheets. The precision with which Bruegel reproduced the ships’ structures and equipment elicits the wonder of experts.

Elke Oberthaler. Bruegel. Thames & Hudson (2018): 146.

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