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

Christ Carrying the Cross

Oil on oak panel, 124 x 170 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

This is the largest known painting by Bruegel. For Bruegel the composition is unusually traditional. Perhaps because he was treating such a solemn religious event, he adopted a well-known scheme, used previously by Bruegel's Antwerp contemporary, Pieter Aertsen. Christ's insignificance among the crowds is a familiar device of Mannerist painting, as is the artificial placing of Mary and her companions in a rocky foreground, which is deliberately distanced from the dramatic events taking place behind them.

Standing on a small hill in the foreground, the grieving friends of Christ are separated from the teeming detail of this scene, with Christ carrying the cross at its centre, and are thus brought closer to the viewer. The style of their depiction, going back to Rogier van der Weyden's paintings, also removes them from the more contemporary representation of the crowd. St John and the saint on the right (and the two mourners a little further back) originated in Rogier's Deposition (Prado, Madrid), which Bruegel can have known only from copies, since the painting itself had been taken to Spain around the middle of the 16th century.

In the background, we can make out a Flemish Jerusalem on the left and the hill of Calvary on the right, with a rock and windmill of unknown significance between them.