Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The Project


The Bruegel / Unseen Masterpieces / project brings together major international museums around the figure of Bruegel the Elder, who died in Brussels in 1569. These prestigious partners wish to celebrate Bruegel's legacy and share the diversity of his oeuvre with the general public.

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium inaugurated this project in the light of the 450th anniversary of Bruegel's death in 2019. The project is the realisation of a profound reflection on the changes under way in the field of museology in the digital era.

Through the medium of a wide range of experiences both virtual and interactive, this unique initiative offers everyone the chance to immerse themselves in Bruegel's masterpieces, by accessing the finest details of each painting and expert knowledge.

CHAPTER 1. Bridging the gap between conservation and dissemination

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium is home to the world's second-largest collection of work by Bruegel the Elder, after the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

While Bruegel is one of the most famous Flemish painters, a large exhibition has not been dedicated to him in Belgium since 1980.

This exhibition, entitled The Bruegel Dynasty, was not a retrospective in the true sense of the word as the majority of the works on display were paintings carried out by the Bruegel sons.
The exhibition, which took place as part of the Europalia festival, was a great public success as is shown in this photograph that was taken at that time.

Throughout the whole of autumn of 1980, visitors hurried to see the Flemish master's works.

"[...] in the square in front of the Royal Palace, coaches as far as the eye can see; a constant flow of French, Dutch, Belgians from the provinces [...]. People running, crossing the square, shouting, before bravely joining the queue which is slowly snaking its way to the entrance of the Palace of Fine Arts. [...] the weather is mild and it is only a few hours before the Bruegel exhibition closes. I'm going to join the crowds. Like everyone, I'm pushing a little! A large woman with the air of a retired teacher pushes me back with contempt. A foldable umbrella is sticking out of her bag and she blocks me to one side with it. I'm sure she did it on purpose! "What chaos", she says to someone else [...]"

Colette Bertot, "Les dernières heures de Brueghel" [The Last Hours of Bruegel], in La Libre Belgique, 21 November 1980.

Why then, since 1980, has no one in his homeland organised another large-scale exhibition dedicated to the great master?

There are two main reasons: exorbitant insurance costs, but, above all, the extremely fragile nature of the works themselves:
As was customary at the time, most of Bruegel's works are oil paintings on wooden panels – generally oak – and are therefore very sensitive to the slightest change in temperature or humidity. It has been difficult from Bruegel's time onwards to organise a large touring retrospective of the Flemish painter's work.

In 1969, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium already attempted to address this issue with the "Bruegel and its World" exhibition, presented at the occasion of the 400th death anniversary of the painter.

"Obvious security issues make it impossible to transport fragile works which are dotted around in different locations. The aim of this exhibition is to reunite all of Bruegel's works for the first in an imaginary museum, through the juxtaposition of black and which photographs in the format of the original works."

Philippe Roberts-Jones, Bruegel et son monde, Bruxelles, MRBAB, 1969, tiré à part.

Half a century after the "Bruegel and his World" exhibition, the problem has yet to be solved. The technical resources available, however, have changed beyond recognition.

The FRESH research programme inaugurated in 2013 and financed by the Fund
for Scientific Research has seen the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium extend the reflective process which plays an integral role in the current trends in the field of museology.
How can we continue to disseminate cultural heritage, and all of the knowledge which goes with it, without putting the works themselves at risk?

How can we use technology for art (and not the other way around) to help the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium reconstruct this "imaginary museum" and pay homage to Bruegel's genius?

Michel Draguet, General Director of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, explains why technology was used to show Bruegel's oeuvre.

CHAPTER 2. The support of Engie and the Google Cultural Institute

The Bruegel, Unseen Masterpieces project aims to let everyone, wherever they are, discover the hidden secrets of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's works. While the painter and his paintings are known worldwide, each of his compositions portray a multitude of familiar or incongruous characters, detailed scenes, stories in history which are also masterpieces in their own right.
In taking a closer look at Bruegel's paintings the audience will be surprised and amazed to discover these often unknown details which are the most stunning expression of the painter's genius.


With Engie's support, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium have come up with and perfected the unique concept of the Bruegel Box, an artistic immersion project.
A system of sophisticated projectors has been set up in one of the museum's rooms, projecting immersive, high-definition videos onto three walls of the room, plunging visitors into the master's works to reveal their secrets.

These immersive projections will successively highlight the great masterpieces in our collections, starting with The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562), which was the subject of a distinguished scientific publication at the end of 2014.
Following this digital experience, the visitor is invited to admire the Flemish master's oeuvre in the rooms above, continuing their discovery through the priceless experience of viewing the original works.


The involvement of the Google Cultural Institute has added the Bruegel Box to the large array of digital experiences, available both in the museum and online.
As a partner of the museum since 2011, the Google Cultural Institute had already digitalised The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) in ultra-high definition.

As the 450th anniversary of Bruegel's death (2019) approaches, the museum is preparing to open the Bruegel House to the public, a place where he is thought to have lived during his time in Brussels. It is in this context that the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium called upon Google's expertise to think up digital solutions for this new place of culture, open to everyone.
The Bruegel / Unseen Masterpieces / project was born from this exchange, at the crossroads of art and technology.

Michel Draguet, General Director of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, talks about the technological partnership with the Google Cultural Institute.

All of Pieter Bruegel's works held at the museum have since been digitalised using Gigapixel technology.

All these works are now available online providing a level of detail which is invisible to the naked eye.

The resulting images, together with iconographic resources provided by the museum and its international partners, have helped design innovative experiences which enhance the visitor experience, from virtual reality to immersive projections and thematic exhibitions.
On smartphones, tablets, computers or interactive terminals, these tools aim to stimulate the interest of every member of the public, inviting them to (re)discover the works with their own eyes at the museum.

CHAPTER 3. Bringing together the biggest collections in Europe and America 

Only 40 or so works by Bruegel the Elder still exist today and those that remain are dotted across the world.
The Bruegel / Unseen Masterpieces / project thus has an international aim to use virtual reality to bring together the known and preserved paintings by the Flemish master by setting up a digital retrospective which is accessible to all.

Through the Google Cultural Institute's help and the involvement of several big museum institutions, in 2016, the initiative reached the first stage towards achieving its objective by bringing together a quarter of the Flemish master's works in ultra-high resolution.

Like the project's first contributors, every museum which holds one or more of his paintings has been invited to join this unique project marking the birth of a new type of scientific partnership for the museums involved.

The Tower of Babel (circa 1568) is held in the collections of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and has been available in Gigapixel format since 2014.

A virtual exhibition is dedicated to this work on this platform.

The Massacre of the Innocents (circa 1566) is currently hanging on the walls of the Royal Collection Trust in London.
A dedicated virtual exhibition has been produced.

Bruegel's Proverbs (1559) and Two Monkeys (1562) are part of the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin's collections and are already available in ultra-high definition on the Google Cultural Institute platform, together with a virtual exhibition dedicated to the Proverbs (1559).
The work is also the subject of an immersive video on show at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.

The Sermon of St. John the Baptist (1566) is on display at the Szépmüvészeti Múzeum in Budapest, and is available on the Google Cultural Institute platform in Gigapixel format.
A virtual exhibition and an immersive video on show at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are dedicated to this work.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York holds The Corn Harvest (after 1565) in its collection. Available in Gigapixel format since 2011, this piece is also enhanced with a virtual exhibition.

The Three Soldiers (1568) is held by the Frick Collection in New York. The work is now available in Gigapixel format and a dedicated virtual exhibition has been produced and is available on the platform.

The Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (after 1569) has long been attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In the virtual exhibition dedicated to this work, the Statens Museum for Kunst – National Gallery of Denmark – in Copenhagen, explores the reasons why experts have long seen the characteristic traits of the Flemish master in the painting, and how a recent study has questioned its attribution.

The advent of digital technologies has had a profound impact on the context in which museums operate and evolve, changing the visitor's relationship with the institution and the work. While nothing can replace the experience of seeing the original work, these changes offer new solutions to tackle the fragility of old artwork pieces. They offer a way of preserving this invaluable and irreplaceable heritage and also provide a new way of looking at such works. They help rethink the notion of access to culture, by reaching out to a wider spectrum of people and giving internet users of all ages the chance to (re)discover art. Everyone has the opportunity to be surprised, inspired and appreciate the artist's genius first on their screen and then in front of the work itself at the museum.Through the Bruegel / Unseen Masterpieces / project, works from more than 20 collections in Europe and the United States are gradually displayed and made accessible to all through innovative experiences both virtual and interactive. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and their partners invite you to explore these works and their secrets, to embark on the trail of one of the greatest painters in history.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
Credits: Story

Jennifer Beauloye

Jennifer Beauloye

Google Cultural Institute
Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam
Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen, Berlin
Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The Royal Collection Trust, London
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Frick Collection, New York
Michel Draguet, Véronique Bücken, Joost Vander Auwera, Laurent Germeau, Michèle Van Kalck, Pauline Vyncke, Lies van de Cappelle, Karine Lasaracina, Isabelle Vanhoonacker‎, Gladys Vercammen-Grandjean, Marianne Knop‎.

© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels
© Philippe Van Gelooven
© Christian Carez
© Courtesy Colette Bertot
© Ilan Weiss / Daniel piaggio
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : J. Geleyns / Ro scan
© KIK-IRPA, Brussels
© D-Sidegroup
© I Love light - Olivier Anbergen
© Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and museum garden, studio Hans Wilschut
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Achim Kleuker
©Museum of Fine Arts Budapest
© Magnus Kaslov/SMK
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art
© The Frick Collection, New York, Fifth Avenue Garden and façade with magnolias in bloom / Photo: Michael Bodycomb
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016 - Peter Packer

Credits: All media
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