Pan Drakopoulos

Bruegel and Bosch

The monster and the folly

IT WAS A STRANGE SENSATION: As though a de profundis confession were 'the violent play of a fool', as though the painful revelation of the darkest nook of the subconscious were nothing but 'a fabrication of Ariel'.

It was in Amsterdam, early in the evening, as we were coming out of the Rijksmuseum and were going up to Rembrantsplein having once again been assured that what we call 'everyday' reality is what great geniuses have realized in their inspired hours and not at all the standard measures of the many. The doors to the special exhibition of Pieter Bruegel's etchings had already been closed. Within the Museum, the thousands of enigmatic creatures that Bruegel had trapped in his paintings had been left looking unrelentingly at one another, whilst outside the Museum all of us -people and things- were behaving as though everything was 'normal', as though 'life' had its own rhythm, as though Bruegel had never cast his eyes upon us. Nevertheless, somewhere nearby we could hear the prudent voice of the Duke of Albany from "King Lear":

If that the heavens do not their visible spirits

Send quickly down to tame these vile offenses,

It will come:

Humanity must perforce prey on itself,

Like monsters of the deep.

Bruegel was born, between 1525-1530, probably in the small township of Breda in North Brabant -now in the Netherlands. He was apprenticed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst before he was 20; and in 1550. after his master's death, he was apprenticed to Hieronymous Cock. In 1551 the Antwerp guild of painters and sculptors gave him the title of "master engraver", a profession that was first recognized by the guild. The following year Bruegel traveled in Italy to get acquainted with Italian painting. He went to Naples and Palermo where he must have undoubtedly seen the fascinating Byzantine mosaics in the churches of that city. For some time he lived also in Rome and worked in Giulio Clovio's workshop; later, another apprentice of singular talent, El Greco, strode into the same workshop. And it was there that Bruegel produced his earliest signed and dated painting.

After his return, at an unknown date, Bruegel lived and worked in Antwerp. In 1563 he got married to his first master's daughter and installed himself in her house in Brussels. There he lived until the day of his death, September 5th, 1569.

Few artists during their lifetime won as much fame as Pieter Bruegel. Yet Bruegel divided his public into three categories, but he underestimated none; he communicated with each of them using a particular expressive medium. In the first category belonged his wife Mayken and a few close friends (among them the famous cartographer Abraham Ortelius). To that intimate group Bruegel showed his drawings on paper. Those drawings were like the artist's "personal diary" since his main interest was scenes of everyday life, in particular scenes of the traffic on the roads. There are many of his drawings that witness the repulsion he felt for the institutional Church -he equally disliked Catholics and Lutherans- and although he was not an atheist he was a strong anti-clericalist. Moreover, he was a fiery patriot. Many of his drawings were a fulmination against Spain, which then occupied Flanders. Bruegel, before he died, asked his wife to burn his drawings but nobody knows how obedient Mayken was; in any case, only a few drawings have come to us.

His paintings were also meant for a limited public although not as limited as the one for his drawings; they were intended for the rich and aristocratic only; it is interesting to note that Bruegel never painted in churches or other places that were open to a wide public. The municipal Council in Brussels commissioned Bruegel for a series of paintings in commemoration of the construction of the canal that linked Brussels with Antwerp, but there is no evidence whatever that the artist worked on that commission. All of his paintings were commissioned by rich collectors in Flanders who worshiped his work. One of them was Niclaes Jonghlinck who had 16 of his paintings.

It seems that Bruegel himself preferred etching to painting. He used the advanced technology of his time to create a series of etchings that could be acquired by a wider public. Bruegel's etchings met with great response among this, his third and largest 'public'. As soon as one of his etchings was printed pirated copies of it went round France, Germany and Italy; besides, there are innumerable artists who tried to imitate him.

The year 1556 has been considered the turning point in Pieter Bruegel's art. Until then, his work was kept within the framework of the Italian Renaissance.

But all of a sudden and without any transitional stage, Bruegel enters into the world of "monsters of the deep", into the dark world of a "demoniacal folly". That transition seems to interest connoisseurs who associate it with the so-called problem of the relation between Bosch and Bruegel.

Hieronymus Bosh was himself a mystery. His name, Jeroen (Hieronymus) van Aeken (from Aachen) shows his German origin. He signed his paintings with the name Bosch, that is, the ending of his native town: he was born at 's-Hertogenbosch in North Brabant, a few miles away from Bruegel's native town of Breda. The exact date of his birth (circa 1450) as well as that of his death (circa 1450) as well as that of his death (circa 1516) remain unknown. What we know for certain is that in 1486 he became a member of a religious society called the Brotherhood of our Lady -one of the many mystic, heretic societies of those days- where he remained an active member until the year of his death. Perhaps, we should not forget that during the late Middle Ages mysticism and mystics, who organized themselves into small groups -usually apart from the Church- were thriving. It is not accidental that at the end of the Middle Ages the Works of (Pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite (translated centuries before by J. Eriugena Scotus) reached the climax of their publishing success, in particular, in Flanders and Rhineland.

The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are illustrations of mystic views. However, Karel van Manter, a painter and poet as well as the author of the book "Het Schilderboek" (biographies of painters in the Low Countries) did not succeed in finding either essential biographical elements on H.Bosch or, of course, an interpretative key to his allegories, although van Manter was contemporary with Bruegel and tried to find out about Bosch around 1600, 80 years after the painter's death. Was not that ignorance curious? Bosch was hardly a little-known painter to have had the destiny of a "forgotten genius"; one of his admirers was Philip II himself, a king of Spain and the owner of Escorial, and in those days the admiration of a king was not something of little consequence as it might be today. The Flemings considered Bosch as the greatest of painters as it shows in the laudatory annotation of Ortelius: "Bruegel was apprenticed to Bosch but he overcame his master's grandeur!" Bosch was not admired in the Low Countries only; one deduces that from Ludovico Guicciardini's book, Painters in The Netherlands (1st ed. 1567), where he refers to Bruegel as the second Hieronymus Bosch ("secondo Girolamo Bosco"). Guicciardini, a Florentine historian, wrote his book for the Italian public and had taken it for granted that everybody knew who that Bosco was!

Bosch cannot be understood despite his great reputation. Ariadne's clue has perhaps been lost for ever. His work is a message in an unknown language; we admire his paintings without understanding them. H.Arthur Klein (this article owes a great deal to his book Pieter Bruegel the Elder), believes that we could have been taught the language of Bosch if we examined one by one all elements -the objects and the symbols he used- and, afterwards, collated them with the works of other Flemish painters. Klein's proposal is serious but not effective. The symbols or rather the symbolic language of Bosch has been molded out of mystic visions: visions that should also be examined one by one. But this presupposes a different education, an education that has not become a victim of specialties. I am writing this having before me an excellent book by count Goblet d'Alviella The Migration of Symbols (1st ed. 1894). Such books simply cannot be written today. It is not because we are idiots; we just don't have the prerequisites. In any case, what we should not forget is that Hieronymus Bosch uses the "demoniacal" element to illustrate a series of religious, moral and allegorical thoughts. To interpret Bosch as a "prophet of surrealism"' as we have so often heard said, is almost insulting. Bosch was as much a prophet of surrealism as Meister Eckart or Mary Shelley were.

The so-called "demoniacal" element was not initiated by Hieronymus Bosch. Both Bosch and Bruegel belonged to a prolific tradition; they both reached the summit of that long mountain range. One can easily see this by wandering in the museums of Flanders and Holland. But it was only in the museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp that we realized how intense and strong in Flemish art are the foundations that Bosch and Bruegel have lent on. It is there that, among others, there are the famous painting "mad Meg" and 12 paintings under the title "The Low Countries Proverbs" by Bruegel. In that small but unique museum one can feel that there is a kind of art that took into careful consideration folly as well as whatever had been then characterized as folly. According to Michel Foucault:

[...] "A great disquiet suddenly dawned on the horizon of European culture at the end of the Middle Ages. Madness and the madman become major figures, in their ambiguity: menace and mockery, the dizzying unreason of the world, and the feeble ridicule of men.

First a whole literature of tales and moral fables, in origin, doubtless, quite remote. But by the end of the Middle Ages, it bulks large: a long series of "follies" which, stigmatizing vices and faults as in the past, no longer attribute them all to pride, to lack of charity, to neglect of Christian virtues, but to a sort of great unreason for which involves everyone in a kind of secret complicity. The denunciation of madness (la folie ) becomes the general form of criticism. In farces and soties, the character of the Madman, the Fool, or the Simpleton assumes more and more importance. He is no longer simply a ridiculous and familiar silhouette in the wings: he stands center stage as a guardian of truth -playing here a role which is the complement and converse of that taken by madness in the tales and the satires. If folly leads each man into blindness where he is lost, the madman, on the contrary, reminds each man of his truth; in a comedy where each man deceives the other and dupes himself, the madman is comedy to the second degree: the deception of deception; he utters, in his simpleton's language which makes no show of reason, the words of reason that release, in the comic, the comedy: he speaks love to lovers, the truth of life to the young, the middling reality of things to the proud, to the insolent, and to liars. Even the old feasts of fools, so popular in Flanders and northern Europe, were theatrical events, and organized into social and moral criticism, whatever they may have contained of spontaneous religious parody. (Translated by Richard Howard).

But what is folly? Who was called a fool in the Middle Ages? An answer can be found in the work of the poet Sebastian Brant, Das Narrenshiff (1st ed. 1494, illustrated probably by Albrecht Durer). That book was very influential in its time; it was composed of 112 short sermons, each of them a bitter satire presenting a different type of a fool. S. Brant characterizes as such: idiots, drunkards,criminals, ill-behaved ones, priests, spendthrifts, beggars, lecherous monks, voluptuous women, scandal-mongers and others that today, by no means, could be characterized as "fools". So, all of them were by force put aboard a boat (as it often happened in Germany in those days) setting sail for Narragonia -folly's utopian paradise.

It is worth noting that Bosch's painting belongs to the same constellation as Brant's work and probably as Erasmus' Moriae Encomium (Praise of Folly(. Erasmus was another illustrious sprout of North Brabant who went to school in 's-Hertongenbosch when Hieronymus started creating his astonishing work.

The feasts of fools that Foucault has referred to are the survival of Lenaea and Saturnalia which aimed at the overturning the moral values and Hierarchy of the times; during the feasts there were "elections" for the appointment of a "Pope of fools", "bishops", "a king" etc. The parodies of Liturgies and Sacraments were very popular in those days. Victor Hugo gives a description of a feast of fools in his book Notre Dame de Paris, where Quasimodo ( a typical fool according the Middle Ages' tradition) is crowned as a Pope. A characteristic of people's fondness of feasts of fools was the high circulation of books relevant to this subject" Das Narrenshiff by Brant was translated into all European languages of the time within 5 years since its first edition; Erasmus, on the other hand, saw the 40th edition of Moriae Encomium before he died.

Mysticism and folly were preconditions for Bruegel's work but they did not belong to his own world. Bruegel was humanist; he lived in a cosmopolitan and libertarian environment. We still have a description of Antwerp as it used to be in the times that Bruegel lived there; it comes again from L. Guicciardini's pen:

[...]"To show you the greatness of this city [Antwerp], it seems good to me to specify the number of heads and masters of shop of some crafts, the most common and most necessary which are now to be found here, so that from the knowledge of these you may more easily imagine how many others there are. There are, then, 169 master bakers, 78 butchers, 75 sellers of sea fish and 16 or 17 of fresh water fish; 110 barbers and surgeons; tailors and boot masters, 594. There are 124 goldsmiths, not to mention a great number of cutters of jewels and other precious stones, who produce, in truth, marvelous works... As to painters and sculptors of various professions of painting and sculpture, there are about 300 masters. Of shopkeepers, large and small, the number is infinite.

All of these persons, being people who are earning money, invest it not only in commerce but also in building, in buying lands and properties, and in every way improving their position, and thus from day to day the city keeps on growing, and flourishes, and increases marvelously.

Moreover, although a part of the lesser folk and some others more austere live in accordance with the old custom of eating sparingly, it is nonetheless a fact that at present the people live sumptuously, and perhaps better than is seemly. Both men and women of all ages go about very well dressed, each according to his resources and rank, always following new and tasteful fashions, but many of them much more richly and more sumptuously than decorum and respectability can or should permit. You can see here at all hours weddings, feastings, and dances. You hear everywhere the sounds of instruments, songs, and the noise of merrymaking. To conclude, in all possible ways appear the wealth, power, pomp, and magnificence of this city... .

I shall say in the first place, then, that in Antwerp, in addition to the people of this country, who in great numbers throng and dwell here, and in addition to the French merchants who in time of peace come here every day, there are six principal nationalities, who reside here both in war and peace, and who number more than a thousand merchants, including their principal managers and assistants. There are the Germans, the Danes, together with the Hanseatic merchants from all parts, the Italians, Spanish, English, and Portuguese, but there are, perhaps, more Spaniards than any other nationality, and certainly without question more who are married and settled here.

All of these merchants observe the laws and ordinances of the city, and, moreover, live, dress, and conduct themselves freely according to their desires. To tell the truth, foreigners live in greater liberty here in Antwerp, and in all the Low Countries, than in any other part of the world... . (translated by J.B. Ross & M.M. McLaughin, The Medieval Reader, Penguin).

That was the environment in which Pieter Bruegel created his paintings. He was an artist who aspired to people' s benefit. Bosch believed in mystical experience, Bruegel trusted critical thought. Bosch shows the presence of the Sacred, Bruegel the behavior of Man. Bosch teaches ecstasy while Bruegel speaks about virtue.

"We should imitate the nature itself and not the artists"; it is a phrase that A.Ortelius attributes to Pieter Bruegel, but I wouldn't like us to see it as a possible comment on Bruegel's relationship to Bosch or to other Flemish painters. I would prefer us to read this phrase as Bruegel's introductory comment on the "demoniacal" element of his work. We like it or not but our way of seeing things is post-Freudian and post-Surrealism. Thus, we cannot approach the works of other times with the proper purity. Therefore, in order to value the functions of our own soul, we should use reduction and abstraction.

Bruegel returned from Italy famous for his landscapes, and all his first etchings in Antwerp represented Italian and alpine regions: huge mountains, snowy summits, ravines. A second series of Bruegel's etchings have as subject-matter the sea and ships. Few painters loved the sea as much as Bruegel did.

Bruegel was much admired for his landscapes -French people called him "Piere Bruegel le Paysant"! But before long everybody accepted him as the greatest genre painter; "genre" means works whose the subject-matter concerns scenes from everyday life, it is the sudden capture of an everyday event. Genre enthralled Bruegel; many of his drawings (the ones he meant for his most intimate circle) were genre town scenes. Anything can be genre provided it is not a pose; for instance, it can be a torture on condition that is not out of the normal. In other words, genre must show what we don't usually take much notice of and not what rarely happens. Bruegel used the element of genre continuously, and in this way he was completely opposed to Hieronymus Bosch. In Bruegel the main part of nightmarish element was derived from genre and not from fictitious creatures.

His work "The big fish eats up the small one", (illustration 1) produced in 1556, seems to be a composition with which Bruegel gets into the dark world of the subconscious. It is the picture where monsters first appeared in Bruegel's work: a fish, a bird or an insect moves towards a sea-monster. Faceless people (their faces entirely covered with hats) appear, and will dominate Bruegel's work hence-forward. On the left, a fish with human legs carries another fish in his mouth: in fact it is the illustration of the proverb, Pishes piscibus esca (The big fishes eat up the small ones). A master in the boat is pointing this out to his disciple by saying: Ecce ! (Look!); that is, he is teaching him the realities of life. Thus, a proverb is illustrated as a statement and not at all as a metaphor; this compels us to search for the origins of the imaginary and the monstrous in the use of a metaphor as a statement. But this is a pivotal philosophical problem which is impossible to be discussed here.

"The Witch of Malleghem" (illustration 2) is Bruegel's contribution to the philology of folly. He elaborates the idea of "The ship of Fools" and paints his own Narragonia. Malleghem is a village of Brabant, but 'Mal' in Flemish means madness. Here we see characteristic types that personify the kinds of fool: a witch, a thief, a garrulous one (under the table with a padlocked mouth), priests, soldiers and others. A woman, holding in her hands the head of a fool, helps a witch to light him up; the full sense of the metaphor is dominating.

The nearest Bruegel comes to Bosch's work is in "The Temptation of Saint Anthony"(illustration 3). Bruegel wants to remind us of his ancestor. The title of his painting and the posture of Saint Anthony are the same in both painters' works. Moreover, Bruegel here uses a strongly symbolic language. But instead of making us turn to mystical experience, he exerts vehement political criticism. The one-eyed, monstrous head represents the Church. The tree, without leaves and lifeless, is hung with the flag of the Cross which is nothing but the sign of papacy as the two hanging seals witness. The head of the fish represents the Pope but its body represents the Church. Upon its body is snorting a demon and within it there are corpses and vultures. By contrast, Saint Anthony is holiness. He is indifferent to pleasures (music) he is indifferent to money and violence (a knife); he turns his back on Church and State and he is paying full attention to the Bible.

Pieter Bruegel associated himself with Bosch only to turn our view in another direction. Bosch's world derived from the German mystics, Bruegel's world led to Shakespeare. Bosch has shown us the path to 'conteplatio', Bruegel to ';ratio.

Nevertheless we should not compare the value of their art. The work of history and the mind of Man know many crossings and they are familiar with many passages and dark paths. Their courses and directions get lost and are found, being opposed and being at peace, they serve the ONE. Bosch and Bruegel worked in opposite directions -yes; but they are priests in the same Liturgy.

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