Peter Bruegel: Requiescat in pace

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On September 5 (or 9), 1569, one of the most important Flemish painters of the sixteenth century Peter Bruegel the Elder died.

For me, his art has always had a special appeal. Even though he has never been as celebrated as the great Italian Renaissance masters, or even the Northern Renaissance greats like Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein, I find him to be one of the most compelling Renaissance artists. Known as the “Peasant Bruegel” because of his landscapes and scenes of townsfolk, Bruegel’s art thrives on a sense of place, the activity of everyday life, and a certain “grittiness”.

But Bruegel’s art is more than pastoral done well. His work, like the earlier works of Hieronymus Bosch, balances overtly moral themes (like The Battle between Carnival and Lent above) with a realism, and at times surrealism, that is not seen very much until the 19th century. Like so much of the Northern Renaissance, Bruegel’s work breaks away from much of the idealism and formalities of the Italian Renaissance, seeking to depict the average human being doing things that the average human being does, whether it is milking a goat, wearing a carnival mask, or falling backwards over a bench. These are the sort of commonplace scenes that color Bruegel’s paintings.

At the heart of his sense of place is Bruegel’s emphasis on community, which challenges much of the emerging individualism of the period. Even in scenes with an essential individual, the individual is incorporated into a larger society. In Christ Carrying the Cross, the Virgin and Christ, while obvious and prominent, are surrounded by crowds of humanity, many of whom are not focused on either figure but are part of a larger stream moving towards Calgary.

Finally, Bruegel’s art seems to always carry with it a certain joy. Sometimes it is whimsical, and sometimes it seems almost somber. The joy in in Bruegel’s art revolves around the folly of humanity, our essential corruption alongside our capacity for charity, kindness, respect, festival, and laughter.

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