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

The Sermon of St John the Baptist

Oil on wood, 95 x 160,5 cm
Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was the most important figure in sixteenth-century Flemish painting, the founder of a dynasty of painters. His realistic painting of peasants in both his secular and religious works gave him the nickname of "Peasant Bruegel". A number of copies of this picture, both contemporary and dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, have come down to us, and many of them are in museums in Flanders (Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels), as well as in Bonn, Schwerin, Leningrad, Munich and Cracow, mostly produced with the co-operation of his sons, Pieter and Jan, and his workshop employees. This tends to indicate that the picture remained in Brussels for a long time, or was in a collection in another town in the Netherlands which was easily accessible to the public.

The numerous copies and variants of this painting with its theme of the Holy Baptism can also be explained by the widespread growth of the Anabaptist movement in those years of religious turbulence and strife. The date of the painting coincides with a period of iconoclasm in the Netherlands.

This picture is probably identifiable as that known to have been in the collection of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, Governor of the Netherlands, in 1633. In this, the preaching Saint John the Baptist is virtually lost in the colourful throng of peasants, cripples, gipsies, mischievous children climbing trees, and trees painted with astounding realism. Even the river in the background and the distant church take a more prominent role in the whole than the impersonal figure of the saint in his hair-shirt.