In his painting, Bruegel invites us to a village populated by countless figures, which fill every space in the panel. Each character is focused on his tasks, most of which seem, on closer inspection, to be rather peculiar.
These details make no sense at first sight. But the key to understanding this masterpiece lies in its metaphorical dimension: these villagers are enacting more than 120 proverbs and sayings, each metaphor turned into a literal depiction.
Every figure and every little scene belongs to Bruegel’s concept of the “topsy-turvy world”. As a symbol for this, the painter introduces his composition with a cross-bearing globe, symbol of the world as well as holy power. The world, here, definitely is upside-down.
Tarts on the roof
The rooftop is covered with numerous tarts. This could have multiple meanings. The saying “there the roof is tiled with tarts” refers on one side to the land of plenty. But it could also describe a fool’s paradise.
Here, we see a man shaving a sheep. In relation to his neighbor who works on a pig, this image means “one shears sheep, the other pigs” : some live in luxury, others are in need.
The Dutch Proverbs, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559
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