No matter how profound or how complicated the philosophical aspects of the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder may be, the popular Bruegel shares with the other Bruegel one characteristic vital to both; a tremendous gusto, a full blooded heartiness, an ebullient curiosity about the visual world and an irrepressible appreciation of its rich physical satisfactions. Initially, Bruegel became known for his fantasy-moralities that brought him the sobriquet ”Pieter the Droll”.
”Droll” carried implications beyond the merely humorous, edging into the sinister and terrible, and in this field young Bruegel’s mentor by example was Hieronymus Bosch, dead since 1516 but still the great master of moral allegory in the form of diableries.This was Bruegel’s ”humanity if faulty” phase. Bruegel’s professional mentor was Hieronymus Cock, an Antwerp print dealer who had commissioned him to do drawings for engravings on such salable subjects as the deadly sins. ”Pieter the Droll” was always thought of as a follower of Bosch by commentators and historians, but this appears somewhat of a distortion; much less than half the story.
Like Bosch, Bruegel treated things monstrous and deformed as symbols of moral corruption. But where Bosch’s visionary intensity is concerned only with a nightmarish battle between the forces of heaven and hell, Bruegel never quite leaves the real world. There is always an admixture of humor with the grotesquery, and of compassion with the morbidity. Sin for Bruegel was more than a manner of private degradation; his most hellish conceptions are comments on the texture of society as well as moral abstractions.
When Bruegel shows us maimed beggars dragging themselves along with rough sticks as crutches, their brutalized spirits showing dark and blank behind their eye sockets, he shows them to us not only as Bosch showed his monsters, as symbols of the spirit defiled by sin, but also as victims of human cruelty. At a time when the maimed, the insane, the feeble minded, and the deformed were laughed at, or at best thought of as animals differing from stray dogs only in being more diverting, Bruegel made them a rebuke to society. Without idealizing them or pretending that they were anything more than bestial, he said that they had been born men and that their reduction to a bestial state was accomplished by a cruel society that thus degraded itself.
”Bruegel depicts the cripples in isolation in this late picture. A woman is withdrawing, presumably having brought them food. The cripples appear excited; we cannot detect why. The different headwear could indicate the various social stations: mitre (clergy), fur hat (citizen), cap (peasant), helmet (soldier), crown (aristocrat). “A lie goes like a cripple on crutches,” says a Netherlands proverb. This would mean that all of society is hypocritical. It is not this allegory which is of interest to us today, however, but rather Bruegel’s view of maimed people.”
Bosch’s greatest work seems calculated to induce an orgy of spiritual terror by way of an orgy of sexual excitement. Bruegel’s horror of sin appears to have less to do with damage to the immortal soul than with the ignobility it inflicts upon the living man; foolishness becoming a greater sin than lust. Explicitly sexual references seem rare or highly sublimated in Bruegel,s work, and suggestive sexuality is basically non-existant.
Bruegel’s recognition of human foibles never reduced him to bitterness, or at least discerible in the paintings. From the mass of it, it can be deduced that he regarded misanthropy as a form of self-interest as degrading in its way as avarice or gluttony. He ssaid something of the kind in ”The Misanthrope” , where a stooped, sour old man plods through a landscape composed in the form of a circle. The old man has isolated himself within this world under a black cloak with a deep hood. he is oblivious to the deep landscape stretching beyond him. The misanthrope is not aware either, of a bizarre ragged little figure encased in a crystal globe, likely the earth, who has reached up under the cloak to pinch the old man’s money bag. The misanthrope is thus doubly robbed; wrapped in the false security of his symbolic cloak and hood, he robs himself to the world, but he cannot escape the world even so,for it in turn robs him.