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

Christ Carrying the Cross (detail)

Oil on oak panel
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In a detail such as this, Bruegel's painting possesses a vividness which would seem to come directly from his observation of contemporary life. Public executions were a familiar feature of sixteenth-century life, espe- cially in troubled Flanders. Here Bruegel shows the two thieves who were to hang on either side of Christ being trundled to the place of execution. Both clutch crucifixes and are making their final confessions to the cowled priests beside them. The thieves, their confessors and the ghoulish spectators who surround the cart are all in contemporary dress. In Bruegel's day public executions were well attended occasions which had the air of festivals or carnivals. Here Bruegel shows the absolute indifference of the gawping crowds to the fear and misery of the condemned men. (Elsewhere in the picture he shows the pickpockets and the pedlars who preyed upon the crowds at such events.) It is noteworthy that Bruegel makes no distinction between the two thieves, one of whom Christ was to bless.