This fascinating full-length study examines all works by the great Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel within the wider setting of art during his lifetime.
The recent rediscovery in Spain of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s lost painting, The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day, has created even more interest in this much-loved artist, who was one of the Netherlands’ two great masters of satire and fantasy, along with Hieronymus Bosch. Although these two artists never met each other – Bruegel was born around 1525, a decade after Bosch’s death – numerous features link them; indeed, Bruegel painted several demon-infested hellscapes directly inspired by the older master, and he was known in Antwerp as a “second Bosch.” But Bruegel is most famous for his peasant scenes, often humorous and packed with anecdote, and for his landscapes, which poignantly evoke Nature’s changing seasons. His legacy to Netherlandish art was the enduring popularity of both these genres, as well as the artistic dynasty he founded, beginning with his painter sons Pieter the Younger and Jan Brueghel.
Bruegel also painted religious scenes in a wide Flemish landscape setting, as in the Conversion of Paul and The Sermon of St. John the Baptist. Even if Bruegel‘s subject matter was unconventional, the religious ideals and proverbs driving his paintings were typical of the Northern Renaissance. He accurately depicted people with disabilities, such as in The Blind Leading the Blind, which depicted a quote from the Bible: “If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Matthew 15:14). Using the Bible to interpret this painting, the six blind men are symbols of the blindness of mankind in pursuing earthly goals instead of focusing on Christ’s teachings.
From 1555 until 1563, Bruegel lived in Antwerp, then the publishing centre of northern Europe, mainly working as a designer of over forty prints for Cock, though his dated paintings begin in 1557.  With one exception, Bruegel did not work the plates himself, but produced a drawing which Cock’s specialists worked from. He moved in the lively Humanist circles of the city, and his change of name (or at least its spelling) in 1559 can be seen as an attempt to Latinize it; at the same time he changed the script he signed in from the Gothic blackletter to Roman capitals. 
In Brussels, Bruegel produced his greatest paintings but only few designs for engravings, for the connection with Hiëronymus Cock may have become less close after Bruegel left Antwerp. Another reason for the concentration on painting may have been his growing success in this field. Among his patrons was Antione Perrenot Cardinal de Granvelle, president of the council of state in the Netherlands, in whose palace in Brussels the sculptor Jacques Jonghelinck had a studio. He and Bruegel had traveled in Italy at the same time, and his brother, a rich Antwerp collector, Niclaes, was Bruegel’s greatest patron, having by 1566 acquired 16 of his paintings. Another patron was Abraham Ortelius, who in a memorable obituary called Bruegel the most perfect artist of the century. Most of his paintings were done for collectors.
Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, byname Peasant Bruegel, Dutch Pieter Bruegel De Oudere or Boeren Bruegel, Bruegel also spelled Brueghel or Breughel, (born c. 1525, probably Breda, duchy of Brabant [now in the Netherlands]—died Sept. 5/9, 1569, Brussels [now in Belgium]), the greatest Flemish painter of the 16th century, whose landscapes and vigorous, often witty scenes of peasant life are particularly renowned. Since Bruegel signed and dated many of his works, his artistic evolution can be traced from the early landscapes, in which he shows affinity with the Flemish 16th-century landscape tradition, to his last works, which are Italianate. He exerted a strong influence on painting in the Low Countries, and through his sons Jan and Pieter he became the ancestor of a dynasty of painters that survived into the 18th century.
The painting showcases a large tower that is intended to mirror the Roman Colosseum, and serves to represent the biblical Tower of Babel – an architectural masterpiece described as a symbol representing the unification of mankind and their commitment to the Church and its religious doctrine. Yet as exhibited in Bruegel’s painting, upon closer speculation, it can be seen that this ideal passage from the Bible can be slightly askew, as Bruegel hopes to convey through his faulty tower. Of course, this was no mistake, as during the time this painting was created, the Church was, in fact, dealing with a schism between the Catholic and Protestant theologies, a dynamic that was ultimately visible between the home of Catholicism (Rome) and the Lutheran-Protestant religion arising in the Netherlands.
As the mythological tale goes, Icarus and his father Daedalus planned to flee Crete, and in order to escape, they formulated a plan that involved constructing homemade wings out of feathers and wax. Yet Daedalus warns Icarus that the wings he created are not durable if he flies too close to the sun. Ignoring his father’s words, Icarus does, indeed, end up in danger as his wings quickly begin to melt away, sending him plummeting into the sea below.
As well as looking forwards, his art reinvigorates medieval subjects such as marginal drolleries of ordinary life in illuminated manuscripts, and the calendar scenes of agricultural labours set in landscape backgrounds, and puts these on a much larger scale than before, and in the expensive medium of oil painting. He does the same with the fantastic and anarchic world developed in Renaissance prints and book illustrations.
In contrast, scholars of the last 60 years have emphasized the intellectual content of his work, and conclude: “There is, in fact, every reason to think that Pieter Bruegel was a townsman and a highly educated one, on friendly terms with the humanists of his time”, ignoring van Mander’s dorf and just placing his childhood in Breda itself. Breda was already a significant centre as the base of the House of Orange-Nassau, with a population of some 8,000, although 90% of the 1300 houses were destroyed in a fire in 1534. However, this reversal can be taken to excess; although Bruegel moved in highly educated humanist circles, it seems “he had not mastered Latin”, and had others add the Latin captions in some of his drawings.