A closer look at the masterpiece
The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is one of the masterpieces at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.
The Royal Museums acquired the painting in 1846 thinking it was the work of his son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
The work was then attributed to Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) until 1898 when the date and signature "MDLXII / Brvegel" were found in the bottom left-hand corner, hidden by the frame.
Thus the painting was finally attributed to its legitimate creator, Bruegel the Elder.
The work details the first confrontation between Good and Evil, even before the Fall of Man, when the most powerful angel, Lucifer (or "light-bearer") turns upon the divine authority. Following this, he is chased from heaven by Archangel Michael upon God's orders, bringing about the fall of the other rebel angels.
The painting's surface is horizontally divided into two roughly even halves: the heavens take up the upper part of the work, whilst hell is represented below.
The light hues of the heavens contrast with the rich, sombre tones of hell, where ochres and warm shades of brown blend together.
The composition as a whole, due both to the subject and the painter's artistic choices, reinforces the idea of the fight between Good and Evil – a recurring theme in the works of Bruegel the Elder.
Tine L. Meganck, post-Doctoral research fellow at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, reads the passage about the fight between Michael and the dragon, taken from the Apocalypse:
"And there was war in heaven Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. And the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”
Down the centuries, the stories of Lucifer and the Apocalyptic monster have become merged.
This iconographic ambiguity is not a coincidence as, by referring to these two stories, Bruegel shows the omnipresence of the fight between Good and Evil, and one of its essential components, Pride.
In this painting, Bruegel brings together time and space in one all-encompassing image.
Tangible links to the New World abound in Bruegel's work.
Explorations of the American continent became ever more prevalent throughout the 16th century, and the fauna, flora and indigenous people of the New Continent became the subject of detailed observations, recorded and brought back by the first explorers. Numerous illustrated notebooks of botany, zoology and even cartography were published.
This penchant for the New World also brought about a significant rise in trading, for which the port of Antwerp was to become one of the epicentres. During the reign of Charles V, towns were one of the most important financial centres for emerging capitalism and a fledgling global economy.
The discovery of far-away continents and ancient cultures created a surge of new knowledge.
Numerous works of natural history and series of prints detailing such discoveries and new knowledge were in circulation in the second half of the 16th century, demonstrating a wish to create some form of encyclopaedia. The most striking expression of this wish to catalogue knowledge is the apparition of cabinets of curiosities. These cabinets provided a means for putting together structures which gave a relative classification of "the objects of the world".
Most collectors from the time distinguished what was man-made, known as artificalia, from what was created by nature, naturalia.
This binary division of Art versus Nature, whose roots lie in ancient philosophy, is also presented in Bruegel's canvas. The artist "filled" his composition as a collector would have filled a cabinet of curiosities.
Bruegel's fallen angels are made up different natural elements or naturalia (objects made by nature).
Their naturalistic appearance implies a detailed study of the visible world, as if he had observed them in cabinets of curiosities. Take, for example, the central figure, just below Michael's right foot...
... whose ornate black and yellow patterned wings are indisputably those of a Machaon butterfly (Papilio machaon) – a particularly beautiful species of butterfly which lives on the European and American continents. Its soft, angel-like hair, the evocatively sweet strawberry-shaped body and the exotic flower-tail, make this one of the masterpiece's most seductive demons.
It is not surprising that, as an attentive observer of the world around him, Bruegel used other rare animals from the New World in his Fall of the Rebel Angels.
Exotic animals were particularly prized by collectors. Due to their rarity and unfamiliarity, they were often perceived as monstrous. Thus, the armadillo shell (from the Cingulata family), with its classic bony plates and its ribbed tail, transforms into heavy metallic armour as it falls deeper into the shadows.
The armadillo, which lives only on the American continent, was a real source of curiosity for Bruegel's contemporaries. However, prints and other illustrations which Bruegel would surely have known about, were already making the appearance of this exotic animal known in Europe.
This creature's presence suggests that Bruegel was familiar with the descriptions of the first explorers of the American continent.
The fact that in this work Bruegel associates the armadillo to a demonic representation is characteristic of a particular perception of the New World.
These monstrous creatures are composed not only of naturalia but also of artificialia (man-made objects).
The detailed representation shows the artist's in-depth knowledge of this type of collectable object. He equips various fallen angels with artificial attributes such as scientific or musical instruments, arms and armour, ethnographic objects and even works of art.
This type of portable clock was generally made from ivory and was highly prized by collectors due to its precious nature. The compass in the middle, made from a needle and a bronze plaque, is embedded into the ivory. It tells the time based on the position of the sun.
Bruegel took his attention to detail so far as to paint the different inscriptions on the sundial in red and black. The other circles represent the signs of the zodiac which often figure on this type of instrument. Oriented in this way, the sundial takes on a very specific meaning: it recalls the omnipresence of the fight between Good and Evil, echoing the amalgamation of the two stories, one from the beginning and the other from the end of time. The instrument further reminds the viewer to use his time on earth wisely.
This type of sundial was also believed to be a measuring instrument capable of correcting earthly chaos and keeping people more in sync with the regularity of the universe. By transposing the sundial onto the back of this fallen angel, Bruegel seems to treat these ideas with a certain irony.
Regarding the musical instruments, besides the celestial trumpets played by the angels helping Michael, it is possible to make out a hurdy-gurdy or vielle à roue, a popular instrument at the time.
The instrument's sound box makes up the body of one of the painting's hybrid monsters. Its head and hands are taken from a lobster.
The creature is hiding the body of another fallen angel whose head appears near the creature's flank. The fallen angel, whose cheeks are still rosy, is blowing a trumpet.
These feathers are believed to be references to representation of American Indian culture which started to spread across Europe at this time.
This detail echoes the idea that people had of these peoples at the time – generally living naked in huts and sometimes even with cannibalistic morals. It is not surprising then that Bruegel placed these references in the demonic part of his composition.
The myriad heads pointing down, legs in the air, birds falling from the sky and flying fish, make The Fall of the Rebel Angels perhaps the Bruegel's most literal representation of a world in turmoil.
With the pure angels who transform into a variety of the most unimaginable monsters Bruegel vividly shows the infernal consequences of failure to respect the established order. For some, this work shows the attention Bruegel paid to the turmoil of his period. It can even be considered to foreshadow the political and religious upheaval that was threatening the Netherlands at the time.
Tine L. Meganck, post-Doctoral research fellow at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of
Belgium, talks about the possible political interpretation of Bruegel's The Fall of the Rebel Angels.
At the time, Margaret of Parma was the Regent of the Netherlands. She was advised by the powerful Cardinal de Granvelle. History remembers Granvelle as a hated politician, but he was also a great patron, hosting artists in his palace, and a great collector of artificialia and naturalia, the type of enthusiast that Bruegel targeted. He owned at least one more of Bruegel's works. In 1561, Granvelle was named Archbishop of Malines. This position led to a power struggle with the local nobility, including the young William of Orange. Whilst Orange himself was not a great collector, he had inherited one of the Flemish master's works, which was the subject of great envy: Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. It was one of these paintings that Bruegel tried to surpass in The Fall of the Rebel Angels.
In 1562, Orange made his Brussels palace the home of the "League against Granvelle". As for Granvelle, he reported Orange's growing disobedience to the King. From a theatre performance organised that same year, we can deduce that the population also felt that tensions had reached a peak. Rhetoricians from Brussels organised a competition on the issue of "How to maintain peace in these countries". Different participants mentioned Lucifer's disobedience as a negative example; pride led to discord and disorder, which were a threat to peace. Bruegel was familiar with the culture of both the rhetoricians and the court collectors. We can therefore ask the question as to whether, by emulating Bosch – particularly with The Garden of Earthly Delights in Orange's possession – Bruegel was targeting the collector Granvelle or his fight for power.
In Bruegel’s work, the representations of a world led to apocalypse by the madness of men, were truly visionary as, in 1562, the Netherlands was yet to see the true disaster of war.
With the events which would follow only four years later with the outbreak of the Iconoclastic Crisis of 1566 and the following rebellion, the warning painted by Bruegel – pride comes before a fall – became a painful reality.
Tine L. Maganck, post-Doctoral research fellow at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of
Belgium, gives us her reasons why Bruegel is, in her opinion, an incredible painter.
COORDINATION & TEXT
Tine Luk Meganck
Tine Luk Meganck, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Fall of the Rebel Angels : Art, Knowledge and Politics on the Eve of the Dutch Revolt, Brussels, Silvana Editoriale & Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, 2014.
THANKS GO TO
Véronique Bücken, Joost Vander Auwera, Sabine Van Sprang, Tine Luk Meganck, Laurent Germeau, Pauline Vyncke, Lies van de Cappelle, Karine Lasaracina, Isabelle Vanhoonacker, Gladys Vercammen-Grandjean, Marianne Knop.
© Museo del Prado, Madrid
© KBR, Bruxelles
© Courtesy of the Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna
© Rijksmusem, Amsterdam
© Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University
© New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. From the collection of Nina and Gordon Bunshaft, Bequest of Nona Bunshaft, 1994.
© The National Gallery, London
© Musées royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Bruxelles
© Klassik Stiftung, Weimar