The art of Pieter Bruegel the Elder delightfully plunges today's viewers into every aspect of 16th-century Flanders. An astute observer of the world around him, Bruegel (born 1525) went beyond simple anecdotes and painted the events of his time with intelligence and humour. The painter started his artistic career in Antwerp, one of the world's biggest ports at the time. From there, he travelled around the Italy of Titian and Michelangelo.
Finally, several years later, he had contact with the Spanish court through the governors of Philip II, King of Spain, in Brussels where the religious quarrels which would soon make the Netherlands a wretched place were steadily gaining pace.
All these factors play out in his paintings. That is why a snapshot of Bruegel's time is essential to truly understand the pertinence of his works which very often are still relevant to our world today. Such relevance is shown by the nickname of "Bruegel the Everpresent" given to the Flemish master by Philippe Roberts-Jones, chief curator at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium from 1961 to 1984 and author of several key works on Bruegel.
Numerous changes were brewing throughout the 16th century, the glorious century which saw the Great Discoveries, a thriving Renaissance movement and humanism, which, in the world of art, brought about the creation of distinct genres such as landscapes and genre scenes. Bruegel's artistic genius gives us an introduction to one of the most complex periods in the history, and the history of art, of the Netherlands.
Jean-Philippe Theyskens, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, tells us why Bruegel is a timeless painter.
Probably born around 1525, Bruegel started his life in the golden age of the Holy Roman Empire of Charles V, son and heir of Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad.
The former Low Countries were then placed under the rule of Margaret of Austria, Charles V's aunt, who established her main residence in Mechelen, in the province of Antwerp.
Upon her death in 1530, it was Maria of Hungary, Charles V's sister, who was chosen to rule over the Low Countries the following year. She established her residence in Brussels in the Palace of Coudenberg. Brussels thus became the capital of the Habsburg Netherlands.
Bruegel started his apprenticeship in Pieter Coecke van Aelst's studio at the same time that Europe was torn apart by the Habsburg–Valois War (1542) between Charles V and Henry VIII, and Francis I of France. The war came to an end with a French victory in 1552, the year in which Bruegel became a free master, or master craftsman, at the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp.
As was customary, the artist then left for Italy to perfect his art. Shortly after his return, Charles V abdicated in the Throne Room, or Aula Magna, of his Brussels palace which has recently undergone archaeological excavations that can now be visited in the underground floors of the Place Royale.
No less than four years later, in 1563, Bruegel arrived in Brussels, doubtless to be closer to the court and possible commissions. He might also have had another more personal reason for the move. Specialists have recently discovered Bruegel's engagement documents in the Antwerp Cathedral. This fact – unexpected from an artist who was later to marry in Brussels – gives credibility to Karel van Mander's allegation in his 'Schilder-Boeck': apparently it was the miniaturist Mayken Verhulst (Bruegel's future mother-in-law) who put pressure on the painter. As he was to marry this woman’s daughter, the painter was obliged to distance himself from a relationship he may have had in Antwerp. Bruegel thus moves to Brussels in 1563.
It was in 1563 in the Notre-Dame-de-la-Chapelle church, in the Marolles historical quarter (about 10 minutes' walk from the Palace of Coudenberg), that he married Mayken Coecke, the daughter of his former master Pieter Coecke van Aelst.
Following the birth of two sons, Pieter Brueghel II (known as "Hell Brueghel") and Jan Brueghel (known as "Velvet Brueghel"), Bruegel the Elder died in Brussels in 1569. The master was buried in the church where he was married. A painting by Rubens, featuring the dead man's patron saint and entitled Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, was commissioned by his friend "Velvet" Brueghel, son of Bruegel the Elder. In 1676, Jan Brueghel's grandson, David Teniers III, restored his ancestor's tomb.
Lutheranism appeared in Germany under the reign of Charles V.
Luther, Zwingli and Calvin soon caused concern for the Catholic Church which had been further weakened by the creation of Henry VIII's Anglican Church in 1531. Throughout the 16th century, wars of religion tore Europe to pieces.
In response, in 1540, Ignatius of Loyola, an ardent defender of the Counter Revolution, founded the Society of Jesus. As successor of the "Catholic Kings", Charles V was not going to lie down. He had to defend the Church and fight the Lutheran Reformation. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) organised the Counter Reformation and supported the Inquisition.
In the Netherlands, strict edicts known as "placards" were put up around the whole country to fight heresy, in particular by imposing the governmental checking of publications and prints. Along with many others, the censorship affected the "Quatre Vents" publishing house owned by Hieronymus Cock, for whom Bruegel worked from the mid-1550s. The placards were followed by the creation of an index of censored books produced by the Catholic University of Leuven in 1546.
However, enforcement of placards under Charles V remained relatively lenient until the arrival of Philip II. Prior to his departure for Spain in 1559, Philip II cracked down on enforcement of the placards and attacked heretics, Anabaptists and Calvinists.The situation within the Netherlands worsened. While the absolutism of Charles V – considered a "natural" prince due to his birth in Ghent – was relatively accepted, the authority of Philip II was much less tolerated. Even more so when he left the country to establish himself in Spain.
Another factor further aggravated the situation in the Netherlands. Growing tensions between Margaret of Parma, Regent of the Netherlands, and Cardinal de Granvelle, advisor to Charles V and then Philip II, compel the cardinal to leave the country in 1564. This erudite collector was succeeded by the Duke of Alba in 1567.
It was seemingly in reference to the events of this dark period of Dutch history that Bruegel painted his Massacre of the Innocents. This undated piece is kept in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and another version is on display at Hampton Court Palace, Greater London.
In Brussels, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium have a copy painted by his oldest son Pieter Brueghel II.
Whilst in some of his works Bruegel depicted folklore still strongly rooted in the medieval world, he was also close to humanist centres which would soon spread Renaissance ideas from Italy to the rest of Europe.
Between the Church and the nobility – beholders of traditions from a world destined to disappear – a new social class was asserting itself, anxious to bring down the established order.
The underlying values of this new urban middle class were founded on technical progress and new discoveries. The same discoveries that would help them establish themselves and prosper thanks to booming business. Numerous pan-European trading firms were founded in the city of Antwerp, like the Della Faille family house.
The artistic influence of the Duchy of Burgundy imposed itself from the start of the 15th century. This was the golden era for the Flemish Primitives including Van Eyck, the Master of Flémalle, Van der Weyden and Bouts. Their paintings, but also the know-how of artisan upholsterer and Brabançon altarpieces spread throughout Europe and actively contributed to this influence.
This trend continues through the 16th century, helped by the emergence of humanist thought which spread throughout Europe. Erasmus published his The Praise of Folly in 1511 which, interestingly, he dedicated to Thomas More whose Utopia would be printed five years later in Leuven. The first half of the 16th century also saw Rabelais' intense Gargantua be published in 1534.
At the beginning of the 16th century, Antwerp was one of the most important places for printing, which contributed to the city's cultural boom. Christophe Plantin opened his Der Gulden Passer (Golden Compass) publishing house in 1549, a year after Hieronymus Cock had opened his Quatre Vents publishing house.
These publishing houses, famous across Europe, disseminated classical culture through translations in vernacular languages. However, they also published scientific studies like Mercator's Atlas (from 1538), Versalius's De humani corporis fabrica (1543) and Copernicus's famous work De revolutionibus orbium caelestium (1543). These publications are a clear demonstration of the 16th century outward-looking view towards scientific progress and the world.
These works also contain some of the most beautiful period etchings within their pages. Having replaced the illustrations of previous centuries, modern prints and etchings became more and more frequent in publications of the time.
This was, interestingly, Bruegel's main job at the beginning of his artistic career in Antwerp. These new techniques strongly contributed to the dissemination of trends and artistic styles, notably the artwork of Hieronymus Bosch which would influence generations of artists to come.
COORDINATION & TEXT
Joost Vander Auwera
-Manfred Sellink, Bruegel : L'oeuvre complet, Peintures, dessins, gravures, Gand, Ludion, 2007.
-Philippe Roberts-Jones et Françoise Roberts-Jones-Popelier, Pierre Bruegel l'Ancien, Paris, Flammarion, 1997.
THANKS GO TO
Véronique Bücken, Joost Vander Auwera, Laurent Germeau, Pauline Vyncke, Lies van de Cappelle, Karine Lasaracina, Isabelle Vanhoonacker, Gladys Vercammen-Grandjean, Marianne Knop.
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : J. Geleyns / Ro scan
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels /photo : F. Maes (MRBAB)
© KBR, Bruxelles
© Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam