Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The Census at Bethlehem (1566) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


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.

Hunters in the Snow (1565/1565) by Pieter BruegelOriginal Source: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

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.

Portrait of Charles V (1500-1558) (c. 1530) by Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (studio of)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


CHAPTER 1. Political Context

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.

The Last Supper (1531/1531) by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (studio)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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.

Portrait of Philip II (1527-1598), King of Spain (1550/1575) by Anonymous (Southern Netherlandish school)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

In 1555, Charles V left Austria and Central Europe to his brother Ferdinand, while his son, Philip II, inherited the House of Spain and the Netherlands. Philip II thus became the new Duke of Burgundy and sovereign ruler of the Netherlands.

Portrait presumed to be of Margaret of Parma (1522-1586), governer of the Low Countries (1559-1567) (unknown - unknown) by Alonso Sánchez CoelloRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

In 1559, Philip II returned to Spain and named his sister, Margaret of Parma, ruler of the Netherlands. He also gave wide-sweeping powers to the Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, a former counsellor of his father Charles V.

The back façade of the Bruegel House (1500s - 1500s) by UnknownRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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.

Bruegel House, 132 Rue Haute, Brussels , Belgium 1000

Notre-Dame de la Chapelle church, Brussels (1210/1210) by -Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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.

The Fight between Carnival and Lent (undated) by Pieter Brueghel II (according to Pieter Bruegel the Elder)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


CHAPTER 2. Ideological Context

In-headliner of Charles V (1531-10-07/1531-10-07) by -Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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.

Portrait of Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba (1508-1582) (unknown - unknown) by Anthonis Mor van Dashorst (and studio)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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.

Sent by Philip II of Spain with 17,000 soldiers, he set out to restore calm following the iconoclastic attacks in 1566 and the heretical revolts. Known as the bloody commander, the Duke of Alba founded the Council of Blood in 1568. Numerous requisitions and executions followed.

The Massacre of the Innocents (unknown - unknown) by Pieter Brueghel II (according to Pieter Bruegel the Elder)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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.

The panel updates the biblical scene by including contemporary events. The soldiers dressed in red depicted by Bruegel may be the Spanish troops of the Duke of Alba or the soldiers of the regent Margaret of Parma.

The Collector's Cabinet (1621/1621) by Hiëronymus Francken II (attributed to)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


CHAPTER 3. Economic Context

Imaginary view of Antwerp with scenes from the life of Saint Matthew (unknown - unknown) by Master LC, aka Pseudo-GasselRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The Age of Discovery in the 16th century saw a rise in trade. Antwerp, where Bruegel started his artistic career, was one of Europe's biggest ports at the time. The city's economic growth brought with it the emergence of traders.

Portrait of Marie Gamel or van Gammel, wife of Jacques della Faille, aka Jacques the Old (unknown - unknown) by Cornelis Jacobsz. de Zeeu(w)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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.

Portrait of Jacques della Faille aka Jacques the Old, Master of Dovie, Bucquerie and Westbroeck estates (1569/1569) by Cornelis Jacobsz. de Zeeu(w)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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 Wine of Saint Martin's Day (unknown - unknown) by Pieter Brueghel II (according to Pieter Bruegel the Elder)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

However, the increasing expansion of big cities was not all positive. The 16th century saw another small increase in social inequality. Food shortages and epidemics did not fail to hit the Netherlands which had its fair share of cripples and beggars.

The Tower of Babel (circa 1568) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen

There was no stopping demographic expansion, however. The cities, like Bruegel's Towers of Babel, had to face an unprecedented boom.

Portrait of Charles the Bold (1433-1477), Duke of Burgundy (1500s - 1500s) by Rogier van der Weyden (copy?)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


CHAPTER 4. Cultural Context

The Annunciation (1415/1425) by Master of Flémalle (Robert Campin?)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1520/1530) by Hieronymus van Aken aka Bosch (atelier)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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.

Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1557/1557) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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.

Portrait of Charles V (1500-1558) (c. 1530) by Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (studio of)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


At the heart of political tensions, new socio-economic relationships, religious unrest and, finally, cultural richness and a proliferation of ideas specific to the 16th century, Bruegel seems to be an innovative artist, observing the world around him attentively. While his opinions remain unclear to historians due to a lack of sources, the painter nevertheless offers us a testament to his great awareness of the time in which he lived and of which he provides a valuable overview.

Credits: Story

Jennifer Beauloye

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.

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
© D-Sidegroup

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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