Harvesters and Humanists: A Case Study of Bruegel’s Neo-Sacred Image in the Post-Iconoclastic Age

Written by Anthony Portulese
Edited by Miray Eroglu

Pieter Bruegel the Elder remains one of the most elusive artists of the sixteenth century, as a disconcerting shortage of biographical documentation has baffled scholars for decades. No record survives of his place or date of birth. Nothing is known of his formal education nor whether he received any training as a painter. He left behind no letters or writings, and there exist no uncovered reports of his beliefs or values from either friends or witnesses. [1] Most Bruegelian knowledge comes from Karel van Mander’s Schilderboeck (Book of Painters) published in 1604, within which he describes instances of patronage and acclaim in the Netherlandish artist’s career. [2]

Bruegel’s enigmatic personal history has left Northern Renaissance scholars struggling to procure evidence to discern the inspirations and motivations behind his work. In particular, a group of five extant panels of six commemorating different two-month periods of the year, created by Bruegel continues to perplex the art historical community. [3] Famously dubbed the series of the Months, it was commissioned for wealthy merchant Nicleas Jonghelinck in 1565; the large paintings were to decorate an assortment of rooms in his mansion on the outskirts of Antwerp. Its most recognizable member, The Harvesters (Fig. 1), honours the midsummer days of August. [4]

Several scholars such as Margaret Sullivan have argued the best approach to understand Bruegel’s artworks like The Harvesters is to relate their subject matter to the ideological context within or around which they were produced. [5] Economic growth in the mid-sixteenth century and prosperity amongst the mercantile class led to a growth of secular tastes in Flemish art.[6] This time also marked the height of the iconoclastic tumult in the Low Countries. The Protestant Reformation ignited riots across the Netherlands and the Catholic efforts to quell the movement caused utter bedlam.[7] Bruegel worked on the series of the Months while these tensions would have been most evident, and it is not cavalier to speculate that this socio-religious conflict could have thereby influenced his work. Further information came forth with reputable sixteenth-century cartographer and religious libertine Abraham Ortelius, who left behind a eulogy for the late Bruegel in his Album Amicorum (Book of Friends, published in 1573), wherein he dedicated an epitaph “in grief to the memory of his friend” who had died four years prior. [8] This evidence of fellowship between Ortelius, a humanist, and Bruegel led many scholars to affirm the humanistic inclinations of Bruegel’s later works, such as the series of the Months, which highlight the individual and collective agency of human beings, preferring critical thinking over heedless acceptance of religious dogma. [9]

Figure 1. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, c. 1565, oil on oak panel, 116.5 x 159.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, United States of America.

Bruegel’s series of the Months forsook representations of overt Christendom and presented a new fervor for quotidian images. In The Harvesters, Bruegel brings the life of the hard-working Flemish peasant into the limelight and the vast background of landscape commands admiration and scenic significance. This emphasis on peasantry and the bucolic splendour of secular imagery – in opposition to the material splendour of pre-iconoclastic religious imagery – is where I believe The Harvesters holds plausible socio-historical worth. I propose that Bruegel’s Harvesters calls attention to humans as a “neo-sacred” [10] entity, in that the virtues they embody reflect the sanctity of humankind and not that of religious dogma. Such reasoning suggests that secular scenes of labour, relaxation and recreation like Harvesters serve as an ode to the wholesomeness of human spirit and validation of the human experience in the natural world that surrounds and defines them.

No textual proof remains to lay claim that either Bruegel or Jonghelinck were members of any humanist organizations, upheld tenets in humanistic philosophy or were suspected of political or religious dissidence. [11] It is therefore important to understand that this paper shall take caution against elucidating or exaggerating the religio-political aspects of his art. It is hence safe and reasonable to speculate the humanistic undertones of Harvesters in terms of its style, composition and subject matter. However, this form of interpretation should hereafter not be misconstrued as synonymous with the beliefs of the artist or his patron.

Part I: Fruits of the Working Man
Since the advent of Bruegelian scholarship, the painter’s representation of peasantry has intrigued art historians. The primary viewership of Bruegel’s panels like Harvesters would no doubt have been their private patrons, rich merchants and moguls, alongside their friends and acquaintances. These high-cultured beholders were believed to take a condescending view towards peasants in art, deeming their volatile body language and exaggerated corporal positions as crude and comical, injudicious and animalistic, their lowly lives uncontrolled by rationality or piety and instead indulging their passions. [12] This understanding of a contemporary audience’s opinion on scenes of peasantry led to the pejorative trend of negative self-definition, whereby this alleged “clownish rudeness” of the peasant in Flemish visual culture contrasted with the behaviour proper of a well-bred man and thereby asserted his natural supremacy over the lower classes. [13]

Dangerous in this interpretation of Bruegel’s peasant paintings is the tendency for interpretive saturation, where many scholars began to overgeneralize their understanding of most peasant figures as little more than caricature for the amusement of an elitist audience. Erwin Panofsky argued that the peasant in Northern Renaissance art served as a disguised symbol for human folly and vice, connecting to a satirical vision of classical themes and motifs. [14] A credible anomaly to this notion presents itself in Bruegel’s Harvesters, whereupon close examination of the panel’s subjects reveals the artist’s heightened attention to the peasants’ facial expressions and personal characteristics. [15] The placid body language of the workers furthermore conveys a tone of humility, diligence and relatable authenticity, rather than vulgarity and distaste.

Figure 1. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, c. 1565, oil on oak panel, 116.5 x 159.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, United States of America.

In the foreground of the panel, a dozen men and women are seen engaged in a wide array of activities. The animation of the twelve figures in various movements, gestures and expressions provide an air of spontaneity. It is as though the image captures a precise moment in time and bestows the scene with an innate authenticity despite Bruegel’s entirely manufactured composition. On the left-hand side of the foreground, two men work in the ripe wheat field, hunched over and reaping the raw grain with their scythes (Fig. 1a). A third man nearby – a young boy – fetches water up the hill through the path cut in the standing grain as he strains with the weight of the heavy jars he carries. [16] One man is only visible from the backside, but the other two share a common expression of vigor and fortitude, content grins spread across their cheeks. Such a sight to a contemporary beholder would spark a certain respect for these workers, due to their personalized disposition which inoculates them from derogative conventions common with negative self-definition.

Figure 1b. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters (detail), c. 1565, oil on oak panel, 116.5 x 159.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, United States of America.

In the centre of the panel, another man rests absent-mindedly at the base of a tall pear tree (Fig. 1b). The figure snores with his mouth agape while his limbs are sprawled apart, as though he tumbled onto the ground out of pure lassitude. While some scholars have argued that this figure comments on the tradition of lethargy associated with peasant imagery [17], given his association with the workers to his left, it is also likely that the sleeping worker could reference peasant industry rather than laziness. Bruegel’s emotional and physiognomical prowess to achieve this genial effect of the slumbering peasant graces the scene with a lighthearted context, rather than a slanderous one. [18] The most compelling peasant depiction in the Harvesters is located on the right side of the panel, where eight men and women sit together in a ring beneath the pear tree (Fig. 1c). They relax atop sheaves of wheat and chortle together as they feast on simple foods like pears, porridge, bread and cheese. Their expressions of satisfaction and joviality evoke a sense of cordial companionship that imparts a wistful sentimentality upon their contemporary viewership.

Figure 1c. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters (detail), c. 1565, oil on oak panel, 116.5 x 159.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, United States of America.

Most curious about this pastoral image is how each figure appears engaged in their own respective activity, blunt in their gestures and void of insecurities that would arise from an external societal influence. This is case in point within the research of David Freedburg, who indicates that Bruegel’s Harvesters displays an “unadorned truth to nature,” refusing to idealize his subjects in form or action. [19] Particularly with the feasters, their diversity in gesture and expression grants them a personalized agency that had otherwise been absent in Bruegel’s previous depictions of peasants. [20] The artist is respectful of the individuality of the peasant villagers, whom he refrains from caricaturing and treats as persons with their own emotional sovereignty. [21] The basic humanity with which he conceives them transcends their rustic manners, while the painting as a whole reflects an embracing vision of community. This composition reflects the procedural production and subsequent consumption of food, the wholesome merits of a good day’s work. Such a humble spectacle of human teamwork calls upon an idyllic allusion to a simpler and more peaceful existence, sequestered from corruptive forces and spiritually connected to the land over which the workers toil.

Acclaimed scholar Walter S. Gibson further emphasizes this alternative Netherlandish tradition that looked upon peasants with favour. He sees Bruegel’s Harvesters as an expression of rustic felicity and of sympathy, envious of their freedom and carelessness [22], and its countryside as a place of refuge and abundance. [23] In this sense, the harvesters of the painting obtain their human worth and their authentic portrayal can be interpreted as an extension of the landscape and an anthropomorphic metaphor for nature itself.

Part II: Riches of the Land
Pieter Bruegel returned to Antwerp from a two-year sojourn throughout Italy in 1554. Other than his collaboration in Rome with miniaturist Giulio Clovio, little is known of what he did south of the Alps. [24] However, it has been supposed in much scholarship that many of Bruegel’s later landscapes, including Harvesters, incorporate masterful usage of spatial relations, linear and non-linear perspective, which when conjoined bestow the painting with grandeur and sublimity. [25] The sweeping sense of space that informs Bruegel’s late peasant and landscape paintings helped solidify a Northern tradition of visual naturalism since the works of Jan van Eyck. [26]

Figure 1d. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters (detail), c. 1565, oil on oak panel, 116.5 x 159.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, United States of America.

Netherlandish landscapes were praised for the vast distances they portrayed and for the infinite variety of detail they included. [27] In Bruegel’s Harvesters, the artist infuses animated human figures within the rural splendour of an non-glamourized yet majestic Flemish countryside. A massive tree dominates the centre-right foreground as it sways its way up the panel space, its branches unfurling from the trunk, bearing deciduous leaves and pear fruit. The tree furthermore divides the pastoral composition of the painting into two respective parts, the right segment illustrating the compacted and compressed portion of the landscape, the left capturing the vastness and immensity of the Flemish terrain. In the right segment, stalks of wheat are being collected and stacked by female workers who bend over to gather the grain. In the background, a man can be seen high in a smaller tree collecting pears on the right edge of the panel, as its foliage blends with other trees and shrubs that partially conceal a quaint village church, where only the edifice’s shingled roof and steeple are visible (Fig. 1d). In the larger left segment, fields of wheat descend down the hill, and two gliding birds help plunge the viewer’s gaze deeper into the panel space. Distant workers carry sheaves of wheat over their heads in the field’s trail. The angle of the trail visually complements a large roadway in the clearing that brings the viewer to a faraway settlement of farmland (Fig. 1e). A small lake abuts an open field sprinkled with dwellings, upon which a group of people appear engaged in some athletic game. Further into the panoramic scene lies another hillside bestrewn with trees and fields of wheat. The viewer’s gaze at last soars over the hill into the grey, foggy coastline, where ships sail to the edge of the sea.

Figure 1e. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters (detail), c. 1565, oil on oak panel, 116.5 x 159.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, United States of America.

It is clear that Bruegel was a master of the “soar-in” style of painting. [28] The panorama and diving perspective in Harvesters draws the viewer into Bruegel’s painted world and leaves them lost within its diaphanous atmosphere. This effect of flying into the world of the artwork is achieved and exacerbated by the angle at which Bruegel creates the scene, from a vantage point high above the foreground. The flat golds of this summer afternoon drowse under a thick sunlight that softens the bucolic land, the beige straw stubble, and the rich ocher of the uncut wheat. [29] The brushwork is thin, the colours are pale, all of which endorse Bruegel’s use of a gentler, freer line and the shaggy, mellow hues and surfaces mimetic of a real pastoral locale.  [30] Bruegel’s ability to recreate natural phenomena pleasures the eye and captivates both mind and imagination. The content of his scenery is neither literal nor commonplace, but his landscape acts as a gateway into a complex world, both cosmic and human, blunt yet beautiful. [31] It is not real, but remains, to a contemporary viewership, recognizably their own reality. In this fashion, Bruegel’s nature exists as a metaphor for truth, [32] whereby the secret, unknown knowledge of the world amid humanity lies embedded within the miraculous constructs of Mother Nature.

Part III: Closing Remarks
In his Album Amicorum, Ortelius writes that Bruegel’s late works can hardly be described as “works of art, but [rather] as works of nature. Nor [does he] call [Bruegel] the best of painters, but rather the very nature of painters.” [33] One can first and foremost appreciate Bruegel’s Harvesters –an exemplary hybrid of genre and landscape painting – for what it shows, rather than what many critics assume it to conceal. Aforementioned throughout the paper, if human beings act as a metaphor for nature in Harvesters, and nature stands in as a metaphor for truth, then by that logic, humanity can act as a metaphor for truth. This humanist “truth” – which holds the secrets and wonders of the universe – lies in the human spirit, an innate curiosity sprung by some cosmic force that created both humans and nature itself. There is no image that can better encapsulate the collaboration between human and nature than a merry harvest, where such a relationship radiates a sense of miracle that leaves its beholders awed and appeased, reassured by the power within themselves. Although positive evidence is lacking to prove Bruegel’s involvement in a circle of humanist intelligentsia or his religious orthodoxy, [34] what is certain is that his late genre-landscape masterpiece of local Flemish harvesters venerates a humanist “neo-sacred” motif that rebuffs an ecclesiastical segregation of humanity and divinity. When all these factors have been condensed and distilled, perhaps Bruegel’s Harvesters exalts humanity as the true exemplar of divinity.

[1] Zagorin, Perez. “Looking for Pieter Bruegel.” Journal of the History of Ideas 64, no. 1 (2003), 76.
[2] Richardson, Todd M. Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Art Discourse in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands. (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011), 205.
[3]These artworks from the series of the Months include The Dark Day (January), The Huntsmen in the Snow (February), The Haymakers (June), and The Return of the Herd (November).
[4] Foote, Timothy. The World of Bruegel: c. 1525-1569. (New York: Time-Life Books, 1968), 165.
[5] Sullivan, Margaret. “Bruegel’s Proverbs: Art and Audience in the Northern Renaissance.” The Art Bulletin 73, no. 3 (1991), 433.
[6] Hillerbrand, Hans J. “Was There a Reformation in the Sixteenth Century?” Church History 72, no. 3 (2003), 536.
[7] Burroughs, Bryson. “The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 16, no. 5 (1921), 99.
[8] Zagorin, “Looking for Pieter Bruegel”, 83.
[9] Bartlett, Kenneth R. & Margaret McGlynn. Humanism and the Northern Renaissance. (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 2000), xviii.
[10] The term “neo-sacred” is of my own invention. It adduces an association of sacredness with the essence of human nature, rather than Christian allegory. “Neo” refers to the period during and after the Iconoclast, whence religious imagery was condemned and secular artworks grew in popularity.
[11] Zagorin, “Looking for Pieter Bruegel”, 80, 92.
[12] Ibid., 91.
[13] Sullivan, Margaret. Bruegel’s Peasants: Art and Audience in the Northern Renaissance. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 15, 24-5.
[14] Sullivan, “Bruegel’s Proverbs: Art and Audience in the Northern Renaissance”, 466.
[15] Gibson, Walter S. Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Laughter. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 61, 64, 66.
[16] Burroughs, “The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder”, 96.
[17] Sullivan, Bruegel’s Peasants, 43.
[18] Gibson, Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Laughter, 62.
[19] Richardson, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 35.
[20] Westermann, Mariët. “After Iconography and Iconoclasm: Current Research in Netherlandish Art, 1566-1700.” The Art Bulletin 84, no. 2 (2002), 352.
[21] Zagorin, “Looking for Pieter Bruegel”, 94.
[22] Gibson, Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Laughter, 104-5.
[23] Zagorin, “Looking for Pieter Bruegel”, 93.
[24] Ibid., 76.
[25] Brink Goldsmith, Jane. “Pieter Bruegel and the Matter of Italy.” (The Sixteenth Century Journal 23, no. 2, 1992), 206.
[26] Ibid., 205-6.
[27] Ibid., 207.
[28] Foote, The World of Bruegel, 169.
[29] Ibid., 167.
[30] Ibid., 165.
[31] Ibid., 169.
[32] Brink Goldsmith, “Pieter Bruegel and the Matter of Italy”, 233.
[33] Gibson, Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Laughter, 103.
[34] Zagorin, “Looking for Pieter Bruegel”, 78.

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