Bruegel had a Worldview

The prolific paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder may be familiar, but a closer look at the artist’s philosophy reveals he remains defiantly counter-cultural.
Pieter Bruegel
Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565. Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Given the paucity of current political debate, the notion of holding a worldview seems quaint. The self-serving dominate, as mindsets close. It’s a parlous situation, particularly when most of our crises, climatic or military, demand the opposite. Luckily, we can turn to the past for guidance, including to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who came up with the idea of a worldview. In his 1790 Critique of Judgment, he called it Weltanschauung.

Living in Königsberg, between Prussia and Russia, Kant immersed himself in nature and championed a comprehensive theory of the world, including humanity’s place within it. His terminology was then translated and the idea itself began to shift, with new worldviews emerging with each generation. Moving away from religion — even from philosophy itself — these readily embraced the scientific and the political. Yet for all their brilliance, it is, for me, a much older painter rather than an Enlightenment philosopher who best connects with that idea of a worldview; by showing us, rather than telling us, how to open our minds.

I’ve spent a lot of time with Pieter Bruegel the Elder over the past few years. Artistically prolific, if biographically rather obscure, he was born somewhere between Rotterdam and Antwerp around 1525. My interest began when I was asked to guide a tour through an exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in 2018, mounted to mark the 450th anniversary of the artist’s death. But my curiosity continued long after the show had closed, not least during research for my first book, written during various lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.

Bruegel, specifically his paintings of the agricultural year, became an obsession. Judging by the clothing of the peasants, his images reflect daily life in the Low Countries during the sixteenth century. They are resolutely parochial, so much so that the villagers repairing their houses in The Gloomy Day are unaware a distant mountain is being swallowed by a glacier or their coastal counterparts are enduring floods after the spring tide. But as more of these details are revealed, a local interpretation proves specious, not least when you consider Bruegel would have seen nothing resembling Alpine moraine from his home in Antwerp.

Truly, the artist had a worldview. Following in the footsteps of painters such as Cornelis Massijs and Joachim Patinir, all members of Antwerp’s Guild of St Luke, Bruegel did not just paint what he saw outside his window, but what he perceived in his mind’s eye. And his was an imagination fired by the power and wealth of the Guild, who had supported his youthful travels across Europe, including over the Alps to Italy.

In Bruegel’s paintings, however, the journeys go even further. Ships sail for spices and the unknown, and snow caps the vertiginous summits, while cows move between lowland and highland — all beguiling subjects to even the worldliest of Antwerp merchants, the people who commissioned Bruegel’s art. And the characters within these comprehensive images, as well as the people viewing them, then and now, are part of the artist’s worldview. We each have a place in Bruegel’s cosmos.

Reflecting the humanism of his age, Bruegel underlined what is shared, what binds us together. At times, he used quasi-godly powers to heave unexpected geological features into view and grant the flattest corner of Europe its own impressive massif. But these are the very tricks that belie the provincial elements of his imagery. While Bruegel relished the homegrown and, at times, the insular, he applied his daily observations to wider ends. And the meticulous credibility of his paintings thereby becomes universal, showing both what was immovable in the cycle and what had already begun to shift, thanks to the vicissitudes of the Little Ice Age.

Preceding Kant and his successors by generations, to say nothing of our own climate emergency, Bruegel reconciled the local and the global. Rejoicing in the former, he embraced the latter to find common ground rather than raising barriers. However familiar his images may be, Bruegel remains defiantly counter-cultural. As W.H. Auden wrote in 1938, looking at one of the artist’s paintings, while preparing himself for seismic change, ‘About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.’

Perhaps our political leaders should go to a gallery once in a while.

Gavin Plumley

Gavin Plumley is a cultural historian. He appears frequently on BBC Radio 3 and 4, as well as writing for newspapers, magazines and opera and concert programmes worldwide. Gavin’s first book, A Home for All Seasons, is published by Atlantic Books.

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