One of the things that has stuck with me from my trip to Austria was that I picked up an appreciation for the art of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He was a Dutch painter of the 16th century, and apparently, the first in the long line of well-known artists. Now, I'm not a connoisseur of art at all; in fact, I was distinctly unimpressed with a Rembrandt of the Apostle Paul that I was face-to-face with. But as a gift for my wife I picked up a set of laminated place mats by Bruegel, and I've been examining them in detail every day at breakfast since. Why they appeal to me is that they convey a sense of what the Middle Ages really looked like...in a sense, they're photographic history hundreds of years before photographs!
I was originally attracted to the set because of his depiction of The Tower of Babel; it's not at all like I imagined it, but it's interesting at least. But what really intrigued me as I studied it was that Bruegel does all of his paintings in the context of the 16th century that he was familiar with...therefore, we see Shakespearean-looking characters crawling around the Tower, and ships of the Dutch armada anchored within the shadow of it. At first I thought this was kind of crazy, but then the value of his method dawned on me...we can really see what the Middle Ages looked like! For instance, one of my favorites in the set we have is The Hunters in the Snow; the dogs look kind of funny, but other details are very intriguing. For instance, the trees are very realistic, and the ice-covered mill is extremely interesting in its design. Plus the two ponds that are frozen over, and the villagers activity on the pond, showed how Middle-Agers spent much of their winter time out-of-doors, lacking the comforts of central heat and television. Makes me realize how much we've given up for our modern comforts.
Another of my favorites is Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap. Again, the authenticity of little details gives us confidence that this is really what the Middle Ages looked like. For instance, have you ever seen a trap like that? Me, neither. And next to the trap is a tree that has been topped and has had "sucker" branches shoot from the tall stump...artists who were making up scenery from random memory wouldn't include a tree like that, would they?! And again, the people out playing on the ice!
Another of my favorites in the set is The Battle Between Carnival and Lent. Our place mats aren't titled, so I try to guess what's going on in the pictures before I look them up on the web. This one, I couldn't figure out at all. Ok, there's a guy holding out a paddle with two fish and their are loaves at his feet, so something about Jesus is going on...but why is he squaring off against a guy with a pig on a stick? And who are the ghostly figures shrouded in white on the left side of the picture? But once you know the title of the picture, all makes sense...except wow, did they really do that back in those days? They must have, because Bruegel's paintings of the other village scenes are so realistic, why would he make up this crazy scene?
More of Pieter Bruegel's paintings are here and here. Take a while with each one...they grow on you, if you're a lover of history.
Sir Charles the Elder