Parable of the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Interpretation of Flemish Biblical Genre Painting: Fall of the Blind

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The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Parable of the Blind
By Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
An example of 16th century
Protestant Reformation Art.

The Parable of the Blind (1568)


Interpretation/Meaning of Parable of the Blind
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Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69)
Medium: Tempera on canvas
Genre: Biblical subject painting
Movement: Netherlandish Renaissance
Museum: Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

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Interpretation of The Parable of the Blind

Like several of Bruegel's other compositions including Hunters in the Snow (1565) and Peasant Wedding (1567), both in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna, this late work of religious art by Pieter Bruegel the Elder relies on a diagonal spatial arrangement, which is presented here in its most extreme form. One of the greatest Renaissance paintings in its simple rendering of a New Testament parable, the work is the usual subtle Bruegel mixture of genre painting, moralistic sermon and landscape painting. Groups of blind beggars were a common sight in 16th century Europe, and were a subject of regular concern to Bruegel. He incorporated a group of them into The Fight between Carnival and Lent (1559, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), and a blind individual into The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist (1566, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest). His painting of them in this work is unsentimental, but so accurate that doctors have been able to recognize several of their eye disorders: the man third from the left is suffering from leucoma of the cornea, while the man in front of him has amaurosis. The painting hangs in the Capodimonte Museum, Naples.



Meaning and Analysis

In most cases, Bruegel's pictures only received their current names long after they were painted, and some of his works are known today by a variety of titles. The name given to this particular composition - which is also sometimes called The Fall of the Blind - is a reference to Christ's parable involving the Pharisees (Matthew 15:14): "And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch." The Biblical parable illustrated a spiritual condition — inner blindness to the real word of God - which Bruegel pictorializes with tragic power. However, as we shall see, debate continues over Bruegel's view of the Church.

Along with its sister work The Misanthrope (1568, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples), which is also painted in tempera on canvas in a late revival of the technique Bruegel had learned in Mechelen in his youth, this large painting shares an aversion for strong colour and a corresponding preference for delicate tints such as mauve, grey, a subdued green and dun (greyish-brown). Compare this with the fiery palette of his strange semi-religious picture Mad Meg (Dulle Griet), or, with the technique of grisaille.

The subject chosen by Breugel for this masterpiece appears among the 100 or so proverbs in Netherlandish Proverbs (1559, Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin), but now it is singled out for a large composition of overwhelming power.

The inevitable fall is expressed by the one great descending diagonal of the victims heads and arms sustained throughout the picture and underlined by parallel and reinforcing diagonals in their wooden crutches and in the sloping ground. The weaker counteracting diagonals, necessary for a formal equilibrium even in the most expressively constructed compositions, are provided by the slanting bodies themselves, the second staff from the left, and the pathetic little bare shrub at the lower left.

No less important in producing the impression of a hopeless fall are the vertical and horizontal lines in the background provided by the meadow, the gently curving hill, the trees and the church; they mark the necessary contrasts to the diagonals while the conical forms of the houses on the left support the development of the diagnonals in the procession which issues from them. But there is more. A straight uninterrupted diagnonal would not only be dull and pedantic in form, but would also miss the tension, the breathtaking drama which the story contains. While the leader already lies prostrate in the ditch and the one next to him is clearly doomed, there seems to appear a flickering ray of hope for the rest, expressed by an interval without fall - an interval which for a moment even seems to receive sanction by the contrasting sturdy vertical of the church. But the forefold forward bend of the men approaching from the left destroys that futile hope, and the pathetic upward tilt of the heads of the leading men of that group reminds us - rather conveys to us optically - that, being blind, they cannot even fathom what is going on in front, and are therefore destined to share the fate of their leaders.

We are all likely to read this piece of Biblical art as the unsurpassed depiction of a tragic event and we cannot conceivably be wrong about this; we only need to look at the faces of these men. It is true that the people of Bruegel's time were not much moved to pity by the sight of cripples and blind people can be assumed to have been put into the same category. The extraordinary blind man in Bruegel's own painting - The Sermon of St John the Baptist (1566, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest) - has not yielded his secret yet. But in The Parable of the Blind, all these pathetic men are as in the bible, victims. Christ saw the Pharisees as 'blind leaders of the blind', and it would have been possible to depict this story in terms of a group of innocent victims of a vicious and irresponsible leader. But Bruegel avoids this interpretation completely. His group of blind men are symbols of mankind as a whole. There are no leaders to speak of - in other words, no one to blame - and everyone is doomed to fall, because they have lost sight of the true message of Christ.

Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7) is another of Bruegel's Biblical works whose message is less blameworthy than it appears. In this case, a Flemish village community is pillaged by Spanish cavalry who are under orders to kill all newborn children. Yet one gets the feeling that Bruegel views the episode as symbolizing mankind in general - a mankind who has lost its way - rather than a specific episode of brutality.

But what is Bruegel's view of the Church? Judging by the fact that none of his so-called "religious paintings" were deemed to be sufficiently appropriate for installation inside a church or monastery, it seems that his iconography was too robust for most church authorities. In this painting, the upright image of the church in the background can be interpreted in one of two ways: either it stands strong and solid, in vivid contrast to the staggering line of humanity in the foreground; or, it is an ineffectual organization that has signally failed to prevent the catastrophe unfolding before it. On balance, one feels that the second interpretation is more in line with Bruegel's position.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Towards the end of his short life, Bruegel began to devote a great deal of effort to exploring the pictorial idea of the falling figure. These studies reached a highpoint in The Parable of the Blind whose unity of form, composition, content, and expression makes it a significant contribution to European painting. As it was, Bruegel barely outlived his creation, dying the following year at his home in Brussels. Despite his tragically short lifespan, the quality and creativity of his surviving output of around 45 paintings makes him one of the best genre painters and also one of the best landscape artists in history. Along with Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441), Roger van der Weyden (1400-1464) and Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), he is one of the four towering figures of the Northern Renaissance in Flanders and Holland.



More Information

For more about 16th century painting in Northern Europe, see the following articles:

Northern Renaissance Artists (c.1400-1580)
Tower of Babel (1563)

• For more about 16th century Flemish art, see our main index: Homepage.

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