Peasant subjects have always received the focus in Pieter Bruegel studies, at the expense of all but a few of his religious subjects. Despite the recent appearance of another volume from Brill, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Religion (edited by Bertram Kaschek, Jürgen Müller and Jessica Buskirk, 2018) and an insightful discussion of religious subjects in wintry Flemish villages (Tine Luk Meganck and Sabine Van Sprang, Bruegel’s Winter Scenes, Mercatorfonds, 2018), that lack has not yet been fully redressed. All the more reason to receive this new book, based on a Santa Barbara dissertation, from Barbara Kaminska.
This new book signals its approach in its subtitle, especially with its emphasis on “community.” Despite the contentious religious debates during Bruegel’s lifetime, culminating in the Dutch Revolt, Kaminska argues that the artist – chiefly as painter, not as printmaker – pursued a “project to renew the pictorial idiom of biblical imagery . . . [with] the potential to be an instrument in negotiating values critical to maintaining a harmonious society.” (p. 14) She thus selects pictures and themes that support that optimistic, communitarian goal; but in doing so, she omits some of the more violent or potentially critical or controversial topics. Notable omissions include explicitly religious paintings: The Suicide of Saul, the London Adoration of the Magi, The Flight into Egypt, and the several snow scenes in villages, including The Census at Bethlehem, The Massacre of the Innocents, and Adoration of the Magi in the Snow. Many of those works show religious tension or overt violence (resulting in flight by the holy figures along with a toppling idol). No prints, such as The Temptation of Christ or The Resurrection (discussed by Jessica Buskirk and Walter Melion, respectively, in the Brill anthology), appear in this analysis. Nor do potentially religious meanings assigned to parables, especially The Blind Leading the Blind, or allegories, such as The Misanthrope or Triumph of Death, often seen against contemporary unrest (leading me to date The Triumph of Death to a later moment on various grounds) get attention here. Thus Kaminska’s totalizing argument will need bolstering with quite a few other religious works, not to mention the other major medium, prints. Certainly one could argue, along with Margaret Carroll (cited) about The Tower of Babel (and, full disclosure, with my own study of “Bruegel’s Biblical Kings”, published in 2014, in a Melion anthology from Brill; not cited) that many Bruegel works, beginning in 1562/63 already display an anti-royalist overtone. It is equally possible to argue from the earlier prints (including his lone etching of 1560), but even more from paintings, such as the London Adoration and The Triumph of Death that Bruegel had a consistent horror of warfare, a point that surely might have reinforced Kaminska’s basic claim.
But responses are meant to provoke all Bruegel scholars to think more comprehensively about the artist’s religious and socio-political outlook, while also possibly making more serious distinctions about his later works, produced during the height of religious and political tensions. Arguments by Jürgen Müller in his large monograph (Taschen, 2018; doubtless too recent to be included here) or in my own Bruegel survey (Abbeville, 2011; not cited) differ considerably from Kaminska’s own and represent a more complicated vision about Bruegel and the purposes of his art.
Kaminska’s careful study of the works she chooses, however, does produce real insights. In Chapter One she sees the 1563 Tower of Babel as (but does not discuss the Rotterdam version – smaller, later, and without the straw man tyrant Nimrod in the foreground) in the context of “Antwerp’s mercantile, demographic, and architectural expansion . . . as aimed at resolving tensions potentially calamitous to the community.” (p. 8) A major part of her argument is the documentation that places this work in the domestic surroundings of tax-collector Niclaes Jonghelinck, who had good reason to support the existing governance of the region. Using the work of Claudia Goldstein (Pieter Bruegel and the Culture of the Early Modern Dinner Party, 2013), that kind of domestic conversation-piece purpose accounts for Bruegel’s picture’s complexity and ambiguity but in the service of promoting a harmonious community. Her chapter title focuses on “negotiation” about entrepreneurship, something that accords with what Elizabeth Honig laid out in her 1998 study, Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp. In sum, rather than criticizing a tyrannical ruler, for Kaminska The Tower of Babel intends to promote communication in a diverse urban society, and its pause in the construction narrative “invites his viewers to join the Old Testament constructors and engage in the process of building a community.” (p. 31) Wouldn’t that invitation work better for the later, Rotterdam Tower, not discussed but not at all heralding tyranny or destruction?
About The Conversion of St. Paul, Chapter Two, Kaminska sees the dilemma of new converts, an obsession in Inquisition Spain, the more so for former Jews who were refugees in Antwerp. Again, however, her glass is half-full, whereas one can readily argue that it was produced in a controversial moment. Kaminska takes pains (n. 59) to separate the date of the painting from the Duke of Alba’s harsh “Council of Troubles” later(?) that same year. Yet she argues in Chapter Four, about The Sermon of St John the Baptist, that Bruegel sought to “embrace a new model of religiosity, one discursive rather than dogmatic in nature.” (p. 10) After her perceived contrast of coastline light versus mountain dark in The St Paul, this surely contradicts her claim of a divinely mandated and thorough, if individual, conversion – even as The St. John community conforms more closely to her model of building comity through discussion in dialogue across convivial mealtimes. For her both The St. John and Jonghelinck’s own Procession to Calvary display “colorful crowds of religious moderates.” (p. 149) Not surprisingly (n. 79) Kaminska sees Martin de Vos’s St. Paul series for known Calvinist Gillis Hooftman as universal imagery of “confessional reconciliation.”
The strongest part of this new study (Chapters Five and Six) focuses on Bruegel’s most unusual works: his grisailles. These works surely provided private devotional meditation. The Woman in Adultery (discussed with The Calumny of Apelles drawing allegory) raises issues of an individual’s sins but also questions of religious images themselves (idolatry as adultery – a good point, and a possible reason for the absence of color, pp. 183-86). The Death of the Virgin recalls the traditional medieval ars moriendi meditation and images as part of spiritual process, balancing worldly life with “the best part,” but calling attention (critically or affirmatively?) to elaborate Catholic deathbed sacramental ritual. Of course, these images differ in scale, rhetoric, and function from all other Bruegel pictures.
Building on solid foundations from Honig and Goldstein, Barbarba Kaminska presents a coherent, if reductive – and selective, even at times contradictory – study of Bruegel’s religious paintings as active contributors to religious reconciliation in Antwerp. The book makes an important contribution, but unfortunately it appeared without taking into account of other possible images and of numerous important recent publications, chiefly from the Bruegel year of 2018.
University of Pennsylvania