“Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” - Khalil Gibran
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca 1520 – 1569) was a South-Netherlandish painter and father of Jan Bruegel. His contemporaries dub him 'Boeren-Bruegel' (Farmer-Bruegel) for his skilful sketches of country-life, a nickname that does not do justice to either his work or his talent. In addition to the famed ‘Wedding’ and ‘Kermis’ paintings, Bruegel creates landscapes, devout works and impressions of Hell in a confident and expressive style with great flair for composition and space. Much of his work is clearly inspired by Jeroen Bosch. What is unusual about his religious work is the setting: The landscape and figures in many of his works are Flemish, not Middle Eastern, and Saul’s conversion takes place in the Alps – most likely a remnant of Bruegel’s most recent trip to Italy.
Bruegel was probably born in the village of Brogel (also: Breugel or Brugel) in the Kempen. Until 1550 he studied with Pieter Coecke. In 1552-1553 he travelled to Italy, where he was introduced to the works of, among others, Michelangelo. For the development of his style, the landscapes he painted on the way were of greater significance than the impressions Italy made on him. Once back in Antwerp and after his marriage to his tutor’s daughter (1563) he settled in Brussels, where he died in 1569. He signs his work as ‘Brueghel’ until 1559. Later he leaves out the H, and signs as ‘Bruegel’.
The 1564 painting above is “The Procession to Calvary”, painted on wood, 124x170cm. This is the second-largest known painting by Bruegel. It is one of sixteen paintings by him which are listed in the inventory of the wealthy Antwerp collector, Niclaes Jonghelinck, drawn up in 1566. It was Jonghelinck who commissioned ‘The Months’ from Bruegel and he may also have commissioned this work. Jonghelinck’s Bruegels passed into the possession of the city of Antwerp in the year in which the inventory was made. In 1604 it was recorded in the Prague collections of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, then transferred to Vienna, and in 1809 (until 1815) in Paris, requisitioned by Napoleon Bonaparte as part of his war booty.
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 the Brunswick Monogrammist and Bruegel’s Antwerp contemporary, Pieter Aertsen. Christ’s insignificance among the crowds is a familiar device of mannerist painting (it recurs in the ‘Preaching of John the Baptist’, as well as ‘The Conversion of Paul’), 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.
The procession to Calvary comes to a dead halt when Jesus collapses under the weight of the Cross (centre). Calvary is a different name for the Golgotha hill. To the right in the foreground a small mournful crowd has gathered around Mary and John the Evangelist. The composition consisting of several small groups vaguely calls to mind the work of Jan van Eyck. The landscape is more Flemish than Palestinian - if it wasn’t for the strange mountain the windmill stands on. Some think Bruegel may have tried to compare Flanders and Palestine: Flanders was governed by Spain, and Palestine was occupied by the Romans. Both were aspiring for freedom. In 2011 a motion picture premiered about this painting: “The Mill and the Cross”.