Museum dossier publications on single artists or single artworks hold a special place on the library shelves of Netherlandish art scholars. After Louvre publications set an early standard, the Rijksmuseum has issued important monographs, led by Jan Piet Filedt-Kok’s study of the Lucas van Leyden Dance around the Golden Calf (2008). Among fine Getty studies of seventeenth-century works, one standout is Jan Bruegel’s Noah’s Ark by Arianne Faber Kolb (2005). Perhaps closest to that publication, this new study by Tina Meganck for the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels analyzes their magnificent 1562 Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (the first old master topic in this Cahiers series). Like Kolb, it focuses on the animals and on naturalia collecting, here as the basis of Bruegel’s chimerical composite demons.
Meganck’s doctoral dissertation (Princeton, 2003) bore the title “Erudite Eyes: Artists and Antiquarians in the Circle of Abraham Ortelius.” Thus her focus on that intellectual circle is solidly based, even if the links are tighter to Ortelius than to Bruegel himself. One of the ironies of Bruegel scholarship is that the erudition of both Ortelius and Christopher Plantin has so readily been transferred to the artist himself because of the celebrated encomium of Bruegel by Ortelius.Yet Meganck does make some serious contributions to our knowledge, especially by identifying the mysterious Italian Fabius, who twice wrote from Italy to send his greetings to Marten de Vos and Bruegel. She specifies him (54) as Scipione Fava, close associate of celebrated Bolognese naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi and thus makes a case for Bruegel’s association with zoologists. She also enhances her argument with references to Joris Hoefnagel and other animal painters as well as the nascent cabinets of curiosity associated with Samuel Quiccheberg. There is some danger here too of modest anachronism for Bruegel himself, but these connections are linked to close inspection of the monsters in this remarkable painting.
In so doing, Meganck begins to liberate Bruegel from the other usual trope of interpreting him through this painting as the “second Bosch,” though she examines this connection closely in her first chapter within the larger phenomenon of Rebel Angel iconography and other Bosch pictorial knockoffs. While obviously endorsing the standard linkage, she also makes important distinctions, noting (48) that Bosch takes an omniscient viewpoint from above, whereas Bruegel situates the viewer (especially in his prints of the Seven Deadly Sins) in the midst of the world of human misdeeds. Here too she claims that the wider context had changed and that new religious instability as well as Antwerp’s international trade expanded Bruegel’s worldly consciousness. Meganck also (correctly, in my view) distinguishes (58-59) the undated Triumph of Death as a later painting, different in both tone and topic from this pair of Boschian paintings, both Dulle Griet (1561) and The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562), made just prior to the artist’s marriage and move to Brussels in 1563, the moment when his output shifted definitively from designs for prints in Antwerp to paintings, presumably often on commission. Here she assigns weight (60-61) to Bruegel’s link to the Brussels court, not least through his mother-in-law, Mayken Verhulst, widow of court artist Pieter Coecke. (Unfortunately, the great Metropolitan Museum Coecke exhibition occurred too late to be taken into her analysis, but it might have confirmed Meganck’s instinct, 62-63, that Coecke’s tapestry designs, especially of the Seven Deadly Sins, contributed pictorial ideas to his Brussels masterwork.)
Close looking combines with history of collecting to produce identifications of numerous specific items in the picture: naturalia, in the form of specific animals, including New World animals, assembled into the chimeras (72-91); and artificialia, in the form of instruments, weapons, and exotica (91-103). Detailed images and keyed details on the wrappers assist in locating those elements in the picture itself. Meganck also locates the monsters in their contemporary context of “wonders” (Daston and Park, 2001) and insightfully places the falling angels as monsters “serious jokes of nature . . . in an ordered chain of being.” (117). Along the way, as a native speaker, she also unravels one perplexing riddle: why fools by Bosch and others appear in hollow eggs. The answer is that “in Middle Dutch door means both eggyolk and fool.” (p. 46, n. 28)
But in her final chapter, on the “Eve of the Dutch Revolt,” Meganck tries –perhaps too neatly – to explain how “Bruegel may also have intended the falling angels transformed into monsters as apocalyptic omens of political instability run wild.” (p. 111) She provides some good argumentation: the mid-year 1562 Brussels rederijker contest used the theme of “What can maintain peace in these countries?” (137-40) And she rehearses the links between Bruegel and potential patrons, especially Antoine de Granvelle (145-48, 152-61), her principal suspect, in seeing rebel angels as punished for their disobedience; but she also notes the importance of William of Orange, current owner of Bosch’s Garden of Delights (148-52). With Margaret Carroll, I agree that the 1563 Vienna Tower of Babel already contains the seeds of political protest against Spanish tyrrany. But I also suspect, once more, that here anachronism may anticipate too much later history for a single 1562 painting to sustain.
Ultimately, this generously illustrated dossier, written for both scholars and the general public, includes much original research along with close looking and fresh thinking about Bruegel, especially in his relation to the collecting culture of naturalia during the later sixteenth century. It makes a serious contribution to our understanding of the artist, both in relation to Bosch as well as to the Ortelius circle. If sometimes the latter interest overshadows the former, and there is a bit too much emphasis on events beyond Bruegel’s lifetime, this study richly illuminates the Brussels painting as well as the volatile political context of its making.
University of Pennsylvania