The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

 

The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

The elder son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s was also named Pieterand was just five years of age when his father died in 1569.   The death of his father left Pieter, his young brother Jan and sister, Marie to be brought up by their mother Mayken Cooke van Aelst.  After their mother died in 1578 the two boys went to live with their maternal grandmother Mayken van Hulst, who was an accomplished miniaturist and watercolour painter in her own right.  It is from her that the boys received their initial artistic tuition.  Very little has been written about Pieter Brueghel but Karel van Mander a Flemish-born Dutch painter and poet, who is mainly remembered as a biographer of Netherlandish artists and was a contemporary of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, records that when Pieter was nine years of age the family moved to Antwerp and it is believed that here, Pieter received his first formal artistic training under the tutelage of the Dutch landscape painter, Gillis van Coninxloo III.  When he was twenty years old he became a member of the local Guild of Saint Luke and was registered as an “independent master”.  In comparison to his younger brother, Jan, Pieter was less successful as an artist.  He ran a studio, which had many apprentices, including Frans Snyders, who was to become one of the foremost Netherlandish painters of animals and still-life.  The problem for Pieter was that his paintings although they sold well, were sold cheaply.  The main reason for this was the fact that a lot of his works were copies or imitations of his father’s works.  Art critics have pointed out that his works had neither the depth of his father’s works nor the refinement of the works of his younger brother Jan.

At the end of 1588 when he was twenty-four he married Elisabeth Goddelet and the couple went on to have seven children.  Pieter Brueghel the Younger painted landscape and religious paintings as well as his fantasy paintings in which he liked to depict hobgoblins, fires, and other grotesque figures and it was his love for this sort of work which made him known as “Hell Brueghel” in stark contrast to the nickname, “Velvet Brueghel” given to his brother Jan for his concentration on still-life flower paintings.  Pieter Brueghel and his apprentices spent a lot of time copying his father’s works of art.  He and his studio produced more than sixty copies of his father’s 1565 painting entitled Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird-trap.   Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting entitled The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, which he completed in 1567, was copied by his son in 1600 and was just one of almost thirty copies of the painting which came from the studio.   A painting simply entitled Proverb,s which can be found at the Rockox House museum in Antwerp is a copy of his father’s 1559 painting Netherlandish Proverbs which is housed at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin.  A great number of his paintings featured peasants and their daily lives, just as his father had done years earlier.

My featured painting today is one which Pieter Brueghel the Younger completed in 1607 entitled The Procession to Calvary.  It is a prime example of young Pieter Brueghel attempt to copy one of his father’s great works of art of the same name which was completed in 1564.  The painting which was owned by Lord St Oswald had hung at the family seat of Nostell Priory in Wakefield, West Yorkshire for over two hundred years.  However although the building is now owned by the National Trust the contents belong to the St Oswald family and they wanted to sell the work.  Through the auspices of the Art Fund, The National Heritage Memorial Fund and various monies received from the public, trusts and other foundations the painting was bought for £2.7 million and will now remain at the Priory.

The painting is deemed to be one of Brueghel the Younger’s best works.  His setting for the biblical scene illustrating Christ’s journey to his own crucifixion atop Mount Calvary is a Flemish landscape and is full of fascinating details. The background of the painting is a vast landscape with a river estuary slowly meandering towards the open sea which we can just see on the horizon.  In the left mid-ground we see a city with all its multi-storeyed buildings.  This is not a mystical biblical city from the Middle East but a European cityscape.  I love the details the artist has given the buildings.  People of Flanders who saw the painting could relate to the scene.  Brueghel has not only painstakingly depicted the city but he has spent much time depicting the people and the everyday objects that he has included in the painting.

Look to the right and you can see a troop of soldiers leading the procession up the hill , escorting Christ on his last journey.  Note their armour.  It is modern.  This is not a depiction of Roman cavalry.  This is a depiction of the troops of the Spanish army similar to the ones who had sacked Antwerp in November 1576 when Pieter Brueghel the Younger was just twelve years of age.  Maybe the atrocities of the war between the Catholic Spanish and the Protestant Netherlands affected the young boy and his painting is not just a tale of Christ’s suffering at the hands of the Romans but a tale of his people’s suffering at the hands of the Spanish.

If we look to the top of the hill we do not just see the three traditional crosses which were part of the biblical tale.  What we see is a mish mash of gallows and gibbets.  These would not be unusual sights set outside the city walls at the time of Brueghel.  Public executions were quite common at the time in the Netherlands and as in the days of Christ’s crucifixion, such executions were often attended by the local population.  Ahead of the Spanish troops we can just make out the two thieves being transported in a cart towards the top.  Unlike the biblical tale of the two thieves carrying their crosses like Christ, Brueghel has shown them being moved in carts, which was how those who were to be executed in Brueghel’s day were moved towards their place of execution.

It is also interesting to note how Brueghel has depicted Christ bearing his cross.  He is just a non-descript figure dressed in grey and hardly stands out from the crowd.  He is not the centre of attention in this sprawling painting and yet he has the leading role in the story.  What of the onlookers?  Are these all depicted as wracked with grief mourning the imminent death of Christ?  I would suggest that Brueghel has portrayed the scene differently from what we are used to seeing.  I believe there is a passive air about the crowd which maybe reflects more the contemporary Netherlandish life when executions were commonplace and caused little outpourings of grief except from the immediate next-of-kin.   This is more of an everyday scene than a portrayal of the events of Good Friday.

Take a look at this painting and compare it with the one done by his father which I featured in My Daily Art Display of March 7th.  See which you prefer.

The Parable of the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Parable of the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1568)

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.

The second man

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 blindly looking to heaven

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.

The Pieter Brueghel the Younger version

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.