The Netherlands

During the 16th century the Netherlands was divided into the Catholic Union of Arras and the Protestant Union of Utrecht. Protestants believed that religious imagery led to idolatry, so religious images were banned in churches, and many existing images were destroyed. Protestant iconoclasm led to a decrease in large-scale altarpieces and religious works, and an increased market for genre scenes (scenes of everyday life).  These scenes provide delightful glimpses in human behavior, and often rely on proverbs — popular sayings — to comment on human folly.

Pieter Aartsen, Butcher’s Stall, 1551

In 15th century Netherlandish painting, everyday life formed the backdrop to religious subjects, as in the view out the window of Campin’s Annunciation.  In this scene, the focus of the painting is an Antwerp butcher’s stall, while an image of Joseph leading Mary on a donkey with the Christ child is seen in the background – so the priorities have been reversed!

Quentin Massys, Money-Changer and His Wife, 1514

This painting depicts a man counting money as his wife looks on.  The realistic detail recalls 15th century Flemish painting, but the subject matter is now secular.  Hidden symbols recall the use of “disguised symbolism” in religious painting.  For example, the woman is reading a book of Psalms, but she seems more interested in the money!

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563, oil on panel, 114 × 155 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563, oil on panel, 114 × 155 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

One of the leading Netherlandish painters of the 16th century was Pieter Bruegel the Elder,  whose scenes of everyday life poked fun of human folly, and the vain pursuit material wealth and pleasure.  This painting is based on the story of the Tower of Babel, as recounted in the Bible, but it is set in a Flemish town, crowded with people from all levels of society.  The Biblical story was about the vanity of man’s desire to reach the heavens, and as the great tower in Bruegel’s rises towards into the clouds, the futility of this endeavor is immediately apparent, as we can see that it is already collapsing.

Bruegel’s Tower of Babel (Khan Academy)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559

Proverbs are popular sayings or stories, such as when we use the expression “He put his foot in his mouth” to suggest that someone said something awkward.  In many Netherlandish paintings, proverbs replaced religious doctrine as a vehicle for conveying lessons in morality.  This painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder depicts a crowded village populated by people from all walks of life.  In each of the tiny vignettes he illustrated over 100 popular proverbs!

Bruegel’s The Dutch Proverbs (Khan Academy)

Pieter Breugel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565

Landscape had also fascinated 15th century Flemish painters, but it remained a backdrop to religious subject matter.  In the work of Pieter Bruegel, landscape came into its own as an independent subject.  This painting was one of a series depicting the seasons of the year.  It depicts hunters returning home on a cold winter’s day.  
In Brueghel’s work, the visible world is portrayed with no religious pretext.  The everyday world that had previously formed the backdrop to religious subjects has now come into its own as a subject.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565
Metropolitan Museum

This panel represents the month of August, and depicts peasants working in a field.  While some of them continue to labor in the intense heat, several of them have taken refuge under the shade of a tree to eat a picnic lunch.  As the Metropolitan Museum sums up the achievement of Bruegel:

“This remarkable group of pictures is a watershed in the history of Western art. The religious pretext for landscape painting has been suppressed in favor of a new humanism, and Bruegel’s unidealized description of the local scene is based on natural observations.”
Metropolitan Museum 

Bruegels’ The Harvesters, Metropolitan Museum 

Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1505-15

Working in the region of the Netherlands that remained Catholic, Hieronymous Bosch has often been compared to 20th century Surrealists who painted images based entirely on dreams and the imagination.

This painting was commissioned by Henry III of Nassau for his townhouse in Brussels.  The triptych format suggests a religious subject, but the imagery is not based on any known scriptural source, nor any “orthodox” doctrine.

In the left panel the Lord creates Adam and Eve in a fantastic landscape inhabited by exotic creatures — including an elephant and a giraffe!

The center panel depicts a surrealistic landscape where humans cavort in an orgy of carnal desire.  Recalling the crowded composition of Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs, the picture may have been meant to deliver a similar moral message:

“There are clear and strongly erotic representations of lust, along with others, whose meanings are more enigmatic. The fleeting beauty of flowers and the sweetness of fruit transmit a message of fragility and the ephemeral character of happiness and enjoyment. This seems to be corroborated by certain groups, such as the couple enclosed in a crystal ball on the left, which probably alludes to the popular Flemish saying: “happiness is like glass, it soon breaks”.
Prado Museum

While no explicit sexual activity is shown, it is certainly suggested by the erotic symbolism of birds and fruit (birds and fruit were conventional symbols of fertility in the Netherlands), and by the amorous postures of the nude figures.  The Web Gallery explains the painting’s symbolism this way:

“At first sight, the central panel confronts us with an idyll unique in Bosch’s work: an extensive park-like landscape teeming with nude men and women who nibble at giant fruits, consort with birds and animals, frolic in the water and, above all, indulge in a variety of amorous sports overtly and without shame. A circle of male riders revolves like a great carousel around a pool of maidens in the centre and several figures soar about in the sky on delicate wings. This triptych is better preserved than most of Bosch’s large altarpieces, and the carefree mood of the central panel is heightened by the clear and even lighting, the absence of shadows, and the bright, high-keyed colours. The pale bodies of the inhabitants, accented by an occasional black-skinned figure, gleam like rare flowers against the grass and foliage. Behind the gaily coloured fountains and pavilions of the background lake, a soft line of hills melts into the distance. The diminutive figures and the large, fanciful vegetable forms seem as harmless as the medieval ornament which undoubtedly inspired them. We might be in the presence of the childhood of the world, when men and beasts dwelt in peace together and the earth yielded her fruit abundantly and without effort.  Nevertheless, this crowd of naked lovers was not intended as an apotheosis of innocent sexuality. The sexual act, which the twentieth century has learned to accept as a normal part of the human condition, was most often seen by the Middle Ages as proof of man’s fall from the state of angels, at best a necessary evil, at worst a deadly sin. That Bosch shared fully in this view is confirmed by the fact that his garden, like the haywain in his other triptych, is situated between Eden and Hell, the origin of sin and its punishment. Hence, just as the Haywain depicts worldly gain or Avarice, so the Garden of Earthly Delights depicts the sensual life, more specifically the deadly sin of Lust.”
Web Gallery of Art

The right panel depicts the consequences of folly in the form a Last Judgment taking place in a darkened landscape, lit only by the flames of a burning city.  Musical instruments that once provided pleasure are transformed into instruments of torture, while demons and monsters torment naked human souls.

Although grounded in the empirical observation that was typical of Flemish painting, Bosch’s imaginative approach is unprecedented.  His emphasis on “imagination” can be compared to the increasing emphasis on “artistic license” that was a hallmark of the High Renaissance.

Listen to this Smarthistory conversation about another painting by Bosch:

Bosch’s Last Judgment (Khan Academy)

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