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Pieter Bruegels Netherlandish Proverbs - 1559
Pieter Bruegel Red Herring
Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs 1559-1560, is based on Frans Hogenberg's print, The Blue Cloak, which is also known as The Folly of the World c. 1558. Netherlandish Proverbs is done in a satire comedy format depicting man as he was seen in everyday life in the sixteenth century Netherlands.
Bruegel’s paintings, analyzed in many ways and across many academic fields which include Paul Vandenbroeck’s anthropological views and Herman Pleij history of irony and folly. Margaret Sullivan has associated Bruegel's peasant imagery with satire, cultural status, and humanist learning. Ethan Kavaler explores the visual communications in the 16th century, while Walter Gibson ties Bruegel to the chambers of rhetoric. Alan Dundes and Claudia Stibbe researched the meaning behind the imagery of Bruegel's painting and Mark Meadow places Bruegel’s proverbs as rhetorical training, which conditioned people to store and retrieve knowledge systematically. Miedema responds to Alpers on Bruegel's depictions of peasants in the comic mode. Guy Wells and Margaret Carroll have approached Bruegel in the political and religious atmosphere in the sixteenth century Netherland.
As I find myself following these scholars in analyzing Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs, I will explore Bruegel's use of a red herring and the way he structurally formatted his painting. I believe Bruegel's painting gives us clues to the cultural atmosphere of political and religious changes, along with the important use of laughter which helped to bond this turbulent sixteenth century society.
Pieter Bruegel's Red Herring
Viewing habits in the 16th century were understood to have a central theme in relationship to strategically placed images located in the four corners. In both the print and the painting of Hogenberg’s and Bruegel’s depiction of proverbs, the blue cloak is considered central. Normally blue is associated with the Virgin Mary, but in this topsy- turvey world blue it is associated with deception. Bruegel and Hogenberg show this deception by having an adulteress cover her husband in a blue cloak.
In the upper right hand corner we see a pleasant “shitting by the gallows”. The gallows are associated with justice and the shitting peasant signifies disregard and disdain for authority.
In the lower right corner, we have a man holding a lantern pointing to an ax by the roots of the tree. This proverb “In search for the honest man” is known from the Greek philosopher and founder of the Cynic school, Diogenes who wandered though the streets of Athens in search of an honest man.
In the lower left hand corner, we have a women tying up the devil. “She would bind the devil himself to a pillow.” Pillow in Dutch signifies a place of power such as that deriving from an elected or appointed position.
In the upper left hand corner we have a broom sticking out the window. The proverb “there the broom sticks out” refers to a husband having a good time when the wife is out. This proverb certainly ties in with our Blue Cloak but when one notices the herring hanging beneath the upside down world one wonders if Bruegel is throwing us a red herring. A red herring is something that draws attention away from the central issue. And when we really look at this painting we are able to see that the broom sticking out is beneath a tart, which associates the tarts with the left hand corner and not the broom sticking out.
We may compare our tarts to Bruegel painting "The Land of Cockaigne” which was known in Bruegels day as the land of plenty. There are tarts on the roof that completely covers the roof, signifying prosperous times and full bellies. In Netherlandish Proverbs the tarts are not covering the roof and quite sparse comparatively, signifying rough times and not enough to eat.
Knowing we have been thrown a red herring, we can once again look for our central place within the painting which is the false pillar right above our adulteress. This pillar is referred to as a false pillar of society, and relates to the troubled times in the 16th century Netherlands. We may now see that this pillar is indeed located in the center of the painting and not our adulteress and the blue cloak.
Can we apply Netherlandish Proverbs to the 21st century?
Gossip in the Netherlandishs Proverbs
Bruegel’s world was in turmoil at the time he painted Netherlandish Proverb. Although Charles V, King of Spain chose not to press religious obedience, his son Phillip the II is well known as the King who ruled during the Spanish Inquisition.
Phillip II inherited the Spanish throne in 1555, and amongst his many titles, he was Lord of the Netherlands. In his attempt to centralize the government, he exerted strict control over the Low Countries. This centralization and his policy on religious persecution were among the main causes of the Dutch Revolt.
1) In the upper far right corner there is a magpie sitting on the gallows, “to chatter like a magpie” was a common Dutch proverb.
2) In the upper right, we have a man holding a basket under his horse to catch the horse’s droppings. One interpretation refers to the proverb manure is not figs. Figs in Dutch are slang for horse manure or droppings. This proverb indicate that an individual regards what a previous speaker has said as being untrue and that he is showing that he is not gullible enough to be fooled by it. Another interpretation refers to the proverb - the farmer gives figs to his horse. This might mean that whatever a farmer feeds his horse, the result, or product is always figs. This metaphor comments upon the nature of reality or the state of the world, that everything turns into feces.
3) Next to the man confessing, is another man directing a hand bellow toward the ear of the man confessing. To refer to someone as an ear blower- means this person is a malicious gossiper. Gossiping is inappropriate in a confessional context. An individual should not include gossip in his confession and certainly, a priest should not gossip about the contents of his parishioners' confessions.
4) Our next proverb refers to the two women engaged in a conversation, The one provides distaff for what the other spins, refers to “Gospel of the Distaff” a 16th century jest book about women spinners who exchange recipes and remedies along with mockery and erotic allusions. Their proximity to “the blue cloak” leaves us to believe the gossip is about the younger women’s putting a cloak of deception on her husband.
5) Above the two women is a hen toucher, a hen toucher is a man who follows a woman around worrying about and interfering with the way she conduct housework. His location to the women refers to his eavesdropping on the women conversation.
6) In the window next to the hen toucher are two men, the proverb speaking with two mouths refers to speaking out both sides of the mouth at once, which leaves one wondering what is true.
7) The piss pot hangs directly over the gossiping women – Bruegel’s son, Brueghel the Younger, was known to paint the chamber pot with the contents still in, thus, when one stirs up feces, it stinks. Since this is hanging right over our gossiping women, it could refer metaphorically to the women stirring up trouble.
8) The proverb, there are laths on the roof, means there are eavesdroppers. If laths were eavesdroppers, then in this topsy-turvy world the absence of laths would mean the absence of eavesdroppers. There is no roof on the house. Therefore, one may speak freely.
9) Here we have a shaving a fool - The proverb- Known to blear-eyed men and barbers, refers to what has already become common gossip is said to be "known to all the barbers and blear-eyed men," because in the old days it was in the gathering at the barbers' shops that rumors flourished.
10) Our last proverb is concern with the tree located next to the barber; it grows out the window, this proverb refers to someone who cannot keep a secret.
Bibliography and Notes
- Martin Van Gelderen, 'The Dutch Revolt', 1993.
- Johan Verberckmoes, Laughter, Jestbooks and Society in the Spanish Netherlands, 1999.
- Desiderius Erasmus, Collected Works of Erasmus 1536.