These are the 12 most famous paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder who was an important and impactful Dutch and Flemish painter. This Renaissance artist was the creator of famous landscapes and peasant scenes, in which both types of subjects represent the focus. Bruegel was sometimes referred to as “Peasant Bruegel”, as there were many famous artists in his family, including his own son, Peter Brueghel the Younger. There are about 40 of his surviving paintings but several others are known to be lost. The themes of his paintings are the wickedness and foolishness of humans.
Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)
Also known as The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World, this oil-on-oak-panel painting is one of the most famous paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and contains an illustration of idioms and aphorisms of the Flemish lifestyle in the 16th century. This painting was so popular, that Brueghel the Younger, the original artist’s son, reproduced up to twenty copies of it.
Netherlandish Proverbs depicts 126 depictions of proverbs. For example, in the middle of the painting, the viewer can identify a man sitting on flaming coals and this scene represents the proverb used to define someone impatient as “sitting on hot coals”. Another example is a man on the lower left, biting a pillar, which meant and represents someone being a religious hypocrite.
The Tower of Babel (1563)
There were three paintings of the same subject by Bruegel the Elder – the first one was painted on ivory and was in miniature dimensions, but it is lost today, and the other two are The (Great) Tower of Babel, and The (Little) Tower of Babel. Bruegel’s depiction of the tower with numerous examples of ancient Roman engineering is reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum which Christians of Bruegel’s time thought of as the symbol of pride and persecution. The Tower of Babel is an origin myth (Genesis 11:1-9), which is meant to explain why people speak different languages.
The Peasant Wedding (1566–1569)
This painting depicts, as many Bruegel’s, peasant life. The scene depicts a feast in a barn in the summertime, and two sheaves of grain with a rake recall the work of harvesting, symbolizing the hard life of peasants. The bride is sitting in front of the green textile hanging on the wall, with a paper crown hanging above her. But there has been much conjecture as to the identity of the groom in the painting. Some critics believe that he is the man in the center, wearing a dark coat, or the ill-bred son of a wealthy couple, to the right of the bride, eating with a spoon. But the groom is maybe not even seated and was intentionally left out.
The Wedding Dance (1566)
This painting depicts 125 wedding guests, and as was customary in the Renaissance period, the brides wore black, and the men wore codpieces. As dancing was disapproved by the church and the authorities, the whole voyeuristic scene can be described as a critique and comic depiction of an overindulgent peasant class of the 16th century.
The Beggars (The Cripples) (1568)
The Beggars depicts five cripples and a beggar-woman as an allusion to a historical event. The badger’s tails (or foxes’ tails) on their clothes might refer to the Gueux, a rebel political party formed against the government of Philip II of Spain and Granvelle. On the back of the painting is a writing saying: What nature lacks, is lacking in our art, so great was the grace accorded to our painter. Here nature, expressed in painted forms, is astonished to see through these cripples that Bruegel is her equal.
The Hunters in the Snow (1565)
One of the most famous paintings by Peter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow depicts a wintery scene in which three men are returning from a hunting expedition accompanied by their dogs. This scene of a rural activity also shows crows sitting in the denuded trees and a magpie (a symbol of the Devil in Dutch culture) in the upper center of the painting. Bruegel sometimes used these two species of birds to symbolize an ill-omen. In the distance of the painting, a watermill is seen with its frozen wheel, but also ice skate figures on the frozen lake.
The Peasant and the Nest Robber (1568)
This painting was completed only a year before Bruegel the Elder’s death in 1569, and in, like many other of his paintings, covered in symbolism. It illustrates a Netherlandish proverb: He who knows where the nest is, has the knowledge, he who robs, has the nest.
Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap (1565)
This painting depicts a rural scene of people skating on the frozen river, while on the right side of the painting, among the vegetation, are birds gathering around a bird trap. It is the original or the oldest exemplar of the most successful painting of the Brueghel family dynasty. The artist’s son, Brueghel the Younger, painted 45 copies of this work.
Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (1563)
This wooden board painting is a naturalistic world landscape depicting the biblical Flight into Egypt of Mary and Joseph, with the infant Jesus. The Holy Family is depicted in the center, and the small figures in an imaginary landscape seem to be on an elevated viewpoint. Joseph is leading a donkey, bearing Mary who is holding Jesus. An important symbol is the fallen pagan statue on the right, depicting the triumph of Christ over paganism.
The Census at Bethlehem (1566)
This painting is one of the first works in Western art to feature a significant snow landscape. Bethlehem is depicted as a Flemish village in winter, and a group of people are gathered at a building on the left. Other people are making their way to the same building, including Joseph and the pregnant Virgin Mary on a donkey. At the center of the scene is a spoked wheel, sometimes interpreted as being a reference to the wheel of fortune, and to the right is a man in a small hut shown holding a clapper – a warning to keep away from leprosy, which was endemic in that part of Europe.
Massacre of the Innocents (1565–1567)
This painting depicts a biblical scene. According to St Matthew’s Gospel, frightened King Herod ordered that all children in Bethlehem under the age of two must be murdered, after learning that Jesus was born. But Bruegel set this story as a contemporary Flemish scene. The slaughtered babies were painted over with bundles, food, and animals so that instead of a massacre it appeared to be a more general scene of plunder. This painting was repeated numerous times mainly by the artist’s son.
The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562)
The incorporation of both natural and artificial objects in this painting reflects Bruegel’s stance on how he felt about the newfound foreign land of the Americas. The central figure is the archangel Michael depicted with a sword, defeating the fallen angels and other demonic creatures. Above the archangel, there are figures coming out of a hole in the sky which is the sun. On either side of archangel Michael are two prominent figures dressed in white to contrast the dark colors underneath them. They are good angels assisting in the fight together with angelic musicians.
What famous paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder do you think we should add to this list? Comment below.