This time we take a peak at a proverb that seems to have been a popular motiv for both of the Bruegels to paint on its own. Its it the depiction of a group of rowdy villagers loudly and roughly pushing an unhappily looking drunkard into a pig sty.
“The drunkard pushed into the pig sty”. Pieter Brueghel the elder, 1568
To the modern eye it seems only to be a comical scene, but this is actually a Flemish proverb saying that “those who, like drunken pigs, waste their time and good in the house of Venus will finally have to be pushed in the pigsty with the other swine”.
Simply put: if you drink and whore around, you’ll end up knee-deep.
“The drunkard pushed into the pigsty” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
“The Drunkard Pushed into the Pig Sty”. Made after 1568, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
This weeks proverb will be one that provided me with some confusion. The proverb is presented by Bruegel the elder by a man putting on a blue cloak:
The very same symbolism can be found in Bruegel the elders very famous painting “The dutch proverbs“, a painting also named “The Blue Cloak”. In this painting we see a man having a blue cloak being put on him by a woman:
When I first looked up this proverb, the meaning confused me slightly. To be “wrapped in a blue cloak” means “to be deceived”. This means that in the painting above, the man is being deceived by the woman, possibly his unfaithful wife.
But to me, I’ve always found the color blue during medieval times being associated as a positive color. In fact, the color blue is during history connected divinity and to the Virgin Mary – we often find her depicted in a blue robe, symbolizing piety, faith and chastity. But in fact the color blue in sakral contexts is a color that represents the secular earth, while red represents the divine. This is why we see Jesus often in a red robe (he is divinity) cloaked in a blue robe (secular earthly world). Virgin Mary have the opposite – she is dressed in blue (she a earthly woman) but is robed in divinity (a red cloak).
In this scenario, off course, the color blue in itself represents the deception. The wife is deceiving him by wrapping him blue. The same thing with the man in the first picture – he is ironically covering himself in a blue cloak, thus fooling himself.
We find men being cloaked in blue in more early modern depictions, so its seems the proverb kept its popularity:
A Flemish Proverb. ‘A Wife Hiding Her Infidelity From Her Husband Under A Blue Cloak’
Pieter Bruegel The Younger, late 16th century
De Blauwe Huyck (The Blue Cloak), 1577
Last week I started investigating 16th century Flemish proverbs, where we started with the proverb “to piss against the moon“. Bruegel the elder had a particular fascination of depicting proverbs. Not only is one of his most famous and utterly amusing paintings “The Blue Cloak” a collection of more than 120 proverbs – Bruegel also made a smaller collection of proverbs, originally made for plates, called “Twelve proverbs”. Now we have come to the depiction of an armored man hanging a bell around the neck of a somewhat annoyed cat, from said painting:
To put bells on cats may seem so the modern viewer as a perfectly sane thing to do – we do this to our pets all the time. But in this case, it refers to a very old fable that have developed into a proverb.
The fable tells how the mice are holding a secret meeting, trying to figure out how to stop the cat. They come with the genius idea to hang a bell around the cats neck, that will warn them when the cat approaches. But the plan fails when no mouse dares to perform the dangerous task of putting the bell on the cat. The wisdom of the fable is to that evaluating a plan is not only on how desirable the outcome would be, but also on how it can be executed.
To bell the cat means to “attempt, or agree to perform, an impossibly difficult task”.
“Belling the cat” is one of the proverbs illustrated in Pieter Bruegel I’s painting Netherlandish Proverbs (1559).
Interestingly enough in the depiction above, Bruegel offers us three proverbs for the price of one: it not only includes To be armed to the teeth, something we still say to today (meaning to be heavily armed) but also the proverb To put your armor on, which means to be angry. A proverb to start using again, perhaps?
I have always been interested in what amused, intrigued and reflected ordinary people during the 16th century. But daily life & leisure in history can often appear like a coded exotic language that modern viewers have a hard time understanding. When interpreting pictures or sayings during the period while wearing modern glasses it is easy to unintended draw the wrong conclusions.
Some time ago I came across a, in my opinion, quite beautiful depiction by the Flemish artist Bruegel the elder from 1558. It depicts a man, most possibly slightly intoxicated, standing with his back towards the viewer and pissing on a moon. I initially loved the picture because of it’s lack of prestige and beautification – looking at it feels like peeking into a keyhole of 16th century Netherlands, and there seeing a drunk outside a tavern, taking a leak:
Then I realized there is a text under the picture:
“Vat ick vervolghe en geraecke dar niet aen ick pisse altyt tegen de maen” (Translation: Whatever I do, I do not repent, I keep pissing against the moon)
This little quote doesn’t really make any sense unless you are familiar with proverbs of the period. Proverbs were extremely popular during the 16th century, especially in the Netherlands. So popular even, that proverbs can often be found in their art of the period.
“To piss against the moon” essentially means “to waste one’s time on a futile endeavour”. It is a proverb that Bruegel seemed to enjoy drawing, possibly thanks to the delicate and humorous motif:
Detail from the painting “the blue cloak” (1559)
Don’t miss next weeks Flemish proverb from the 16th century!