Blog #1: Renaissance

“Netherlandish Proverbs”
Pieter Bruegel (Elder)
Painted in Antwerp, 1559
Currently displayed Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Pieter Bruegel has been described as one of the greatest Flemish sixteenth century masters. I was originally going to select his painting entitled “Peasant Wedding” but upon further investigation into his works I discovered the “Netherlandish Proverbs” and was so intrigued by this piece that I changed my mind.
This piece was originally titled “The Blue Cloak” or “The Folly of the World” and as such indicates that Bruegel was aiming to produce a study of human stupidity. The painting includes visual representations of more than 90 individual proverbs, some of which I will outline later. Proverbs generally refer to a common experience and are often expressed in metaphor, alliteration and rhyme. Proverbs were well known to the people of sixteenth century Flanders and the portrayal of them in this painting would not have gone unnoticed. Although proverbs had been represented in Flemish art before, this painting is the first to create a whole world of them. Bruegel uses images of proverbs to depict a Flemish village scene and this became one of his most popular paintings. 
I found this piece to be particularly appealing as on first glance it appears to show a superficial gaiety but upon further reflection you are drawn to his allegories of a foolish and sinful world. Bruegel produced brilliantly organised and very original artwork that has a complexity that is intriguing.
Bruegel was influenced by his teacher, Pieter Coecke and also Hieronymus Bosch. He was friendly with some of the most prominent humanists of the Netherlands and from 1556 he concentrated his work on satirical and moralizing subjects. It was the custom at that time to regard the country folk as figures of fun and in rustic life human nature was less disguised. Therefore, when artists wanted to show up the foolishness of humankind, playwrights and artists often took low life as their subject. Bruegel’s paintings reflected the interests and concerns of the humanists in the middle of the sixteenth century not so much by celebrating human achievement, more by portraying his own personal vision of human folly and morality. Humanism really allowed him to portray human nature including moral lessons of the time. Living in Antwerp he had a diverse society of influences to draw upon and he was able to focus on the relationships and interactions between different social groups and recognise humanistic themes. Working in the aftermath of the Reformation Bruegel managed to achieve a contemporary and insightful vision of the world and, brought a humanising spirit to traditional peasant scenes, whereby he was able to depict peasants’ philosophical problems humorously.
Here are just a few of the proverbs and their meanings as illustrated in “Netherlandish Proverbs”
To bang one’s head against a brick wall – trying to achieve the impossible.
To be a pillar-biter – being a religious hypocrite. I thought this one was particularly apt with him working in the aftermath of the reformation.
The world is turned upside down – everything is the opposite of what it should be, once again the reformation had changed the world, as they knew it.
To have the roof tiled with tarts – To be very wealthy, could be linked to the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church.
To run like one’s backside is on fire – To be in great distress.
To toss feathers in the wind – To work fruitlessly.
To put a spoke in someone’s wheel – To put up an obstacle, to destroy someone’s plans.

“Pieter Bruegel the Elder.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. 9 Feb. 2010 <>.



  1. lemontulip Said:

    How entertaining this piece is now that I’ve read your post! Thank you for including so many examples of the proverbs he portrayed in his work. I had fun locating ones you listed. It’s interesting you placed this piece in the category under humanist influence. Could this piece maybe be mocking humanism since it’s portraying the opposite of human achievement? Or perhaps to support humanism through showing life without it. Very clever to find the connection to the Reformation in here… the Pillar Biter comment seems to go along with the time he painted this. You’re right… this is an incredibly complex piece and it’s remarkable how much he fit into such a small scene. I’d first seen this painting basically as a village full of village idiots. Thank you for not letting that be my last interpretation of it!

    • Amanda Said:

      Thanks for your response. I too questioned the Humanism influence but ultimately decided that it was the influence of humanism at this time, that allowed him to paint such a piece. Glad I changed your veiw of the painting.

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