Holding shared walking sticks, six blind men are shown at the moment when their leader stumbles into a ditch. Soon the others will also fall, which the artist conveys by painting the figures along a slanted diagonal. The five standing men are painted with their faces turned up since they rely on their sense of hearing. Each is accurately depicted with a distinct form of blindness. The landscape is also realistic and represents the village of Sint-Anna-Pede near Brussels.
The Blind Leading the Blind is an adaptation of Christ’s parable saying that when the blind lead the blind, they shall fall into a ditch (Matt. 15:14; Lk. 6:39). The painting is also a visual and verbal pun: within this illustrated parable, the downward sloping movement of the figures suggests a parabola—the mathematical term for an arch-shaped curve. Bruegel is justly famous for these subtleties, which entertained the highly educated viewers in the artist’s humanist circles.
Only about forty of Bruegel’s visionary paintings survive, all executed in a sixteen-year period between 1553 and his death in 1569. Capodimonte owns two: The Blind Leading the Blind and The Misanthrope. These masterpieces were painted in the penultimate year of the artist’s life, and both recreate allegories seen in his 1559 Netherlandish Proverbs (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie). The paintings entered the Farnese collection in Parma when the ruling dynasty seized them from the rival Masi family following an attempted coup d’état in 1611.