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.
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 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.
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.