The Proverbs

By Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30-1569)

In his painting ‘Netherlandish proverbs‘ (painted in 1559) Bruegel invites us to a village populated by countless figures, which fill every space in the panel. Each character is focused on his tasks, most of which seem, on closer inspection, to be rather peculiar...

A woman is tying the Devil to a pillow…

A man is passing an enormous bell around his cat’s neck...

Another one is carrying a mysterious basket out of an enlightened room...

...while Animals are sharing a meal.

These details make no sense at first sight. But the key to understanding this masterpiece lies in its metaphorical dimension : these villagers are enacting more than 120 proverbs and sayings, each metaphor turned into a literal depiction.

This man, on the foreground, is “hitting his head against a wall”...

This flower distribution illustrates “casting roses before swine”, the equivalent to “casting pearls before swine / donner de la confiture aux cochons”...

Every figure and every little scene belongs to Bruegel’s concept of the “topsy-turvy world”. As a symbol for this, the painter introduces his composition with a cross-bearing globe, symbol of the world as well as holy power.
The world, here, definitely is upside-down...

Above the globe, inside the house, two men pull each other by their nose, which refers to the saying “to lead one another by the nose” : the two are tricking each other...

A third man hanging backwards from the window, is holding a deck of cards in his hands : he represents the saying “fools get the best cards”...

The rooftop is covered with numerous tarts. This could have multiple meanings. The saying “there the roof is tiled with tarts” refers on one side to the land of plenty. But it could also describe a fool’s paradise...

The moral message of the work goes hand in hand with a deliberately humorous distancing, an ironic attitude to the follies that are portrayed within it.

Here, we see a man shaving a sheep. In relation to his neighbor who works on a pig, this image means “one shears sheep, the other pigs” : some live in luxury, others are in need...

Not only peasants but also noblemen, as well as the clergy, are represented on this painting.
A pious monk thus ties a flaxen beard on the enthroned figure of God, showing that deceit often masquerades under the guise of piety...

In the background, an elegant man stands on the steps leading to the pond and throws money into the water, an equivalent to the expression “throwing one’s money out of the window”.

In his satire, Bruegel invites us to observe the vices and absurdities of human behavior. The village, in itself, is a metaphor for society as a whole. By looking at the work of art, we are thus invited to look at ourselves.

Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the ElderGemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Credits: Story

Text: Dr. Stephan Kemperdick

Concept / Editing: Dr. Stephan Kemperdick

Realisation: Malith C. Krishnaratne

Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

www.smb.museum
Gemäldegalerie



Credits: All media
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.
Home
Explore
Nearby
Profile