BRUEGEL, Pieter the Elder
(b. ca. 1525, Brogel, d. 1569, Brussel)

Magpie on the Gallow (detail)

Oil on oak panel
Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt

This painting is mentioned by Carel van Mander in his life of Bruegel: 'In his will he bequeathed to his wife a painting of a magpie on the gallows. By the magpie he meant the gossips whom he would deliver to the gallows.' As a result, this painting has been thought to represent the idea that harmful gossip - in particular, spiteful accusations of heresy, so common during the religious conflicts of Bruegel's day - brings people to the gallows. However, such an interpretation does not really fit in with our knowledge of Bruegel's attitudes and it is more likely that it refers to a more general notion of the transience of pleasure, and the threat of extinction which hangs over all mortals. The gallows are a memento mori which throw a long shadow over the gaiety of the peasants' dance and the beauty of the sunlit landscape.

Most of Bruegel's late paintings are dominated by large figures, but in this one and in the Storm at Sea he is concerned with the rendering of atmosphere, landscape and sunlight.