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

Netherlandish Proverbs

1559
Oil on oak panel, 117 x 163 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Although individual proverbs and groups of proverbs had been represented in Flemish art before, this is the first picture to create a whole world of them. These traditional sayings, of which there are numerous contemporary compilations, are of two principal types.

Firstly, those which turn reason on its head, thereby showing the absurdity of much human behaviour; these have for their symbol the world turned upside-down, represented by the upturned orb on the house-sign on the left.

The second type, which have a more serious, moralizing tone, illustrate the dangers of folly, which can lead to sin - for example, the woman who hangs a blue coat on her husband (that is, cuckolds him) and, just above, the man 'lighting candles for the devil'. Other proverbs illustrated include: 'He blocks up the well after the calf is drowned' (centre, bottom; 'One shears the sheep, another the pig' (left, bottom); 'One holds the distaff which the other spins' (that is, spreading evil gossip; centre, middle); 'The pig has been stuck through the belly' (centre, middle); 'He throws roses to the swine' (centre); 'He brings baskets of light into the daylight' (top).

The collecting of proverbs was one of the many encyclopaedic undertakings in the 16th century. Bruegel is offering more than a simple catalogue here: he presents us with a topsy-turvy world, with the Devil seen in the centre of the picture hearing someone's confession.