The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Interpretation of Moralistic Netherlandish Genre Painting

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The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Peasant Wedding Feast
By Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
An important work of
Protestant Reformation Art.

The Peasant Wedding (c.1567)


Interpretation/Meaning of The Peasant Wedding Feast
Other Peasant-Style Works by Bruegel


Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69)
Medium: Oil on oak panel
Type: Genre painting
Movement: Netherlandish Renaissance
Location: Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

For the meaning of other masterpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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like Pieter Brugel,
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Interpretation of The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Among the greatest genre paintings of the Northern Renaissance, and the most famous of all Flemish illustrations of peasant life, the work exemplifies the artist's late-style, with its use of monumental Italianate figures. It was pictures of this type which gave rise to his nickname 'Peasant' Bruegel, although research makes clear that he was an active member in humanist intelligentsia circles in Antwerp, which was an important centre for Northern Renaissance artists in Flanders. While some of its content remains obscure, like nearly all Bruegel's paintings, The Peasant Wedding contains numerous symbolic references as well as a clear moralistic undertone. The work is one of several panel paintings by the artist which are held by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.



Wedding Feast

The wedding banquet is shown taking place in a barn in springtime. The furnishings are a parody of a rich landowner's hall. In place of a finely woven tapestry, an old blanket hangs from the wall behind the bride. The wooden tables and chairs are roughly fashioned, while an old door has been taken off its hinges to serve as a banqueting tray. The main foods on offer appear to be bread, porridge and soup. Two ears of corn on the wall, together with a rake, are conspicious reminders of the hard grind to which peasants are born. On the left, two pipers are playing the pijpzak, while on the right the most distinguished-looking guest is sitting on an upturned tub.

Real-life Sketches and Studies

According to Karel van Mander's Lives of the Netherlandish Painters (Het Schilderboeck, 1604), Bruegel would often mingle with the crowd at a rural fair or village wedding, making drawings of the people and their way of life, which he would later use in his landscape painting and religious art, as well as his genre works. And indeed, this picture has traditionally been regarded as a straightforward portrayal of peasant life. However, Bruegel injects the scene with an unmistakeable moral judgment - highlighting the fact that the marriage celebration has deteriorated into gluttony and self-indulgence. In contrast to his earlier engraving of The Vices (1556-57), which Bruegel populated with grotesque figures in the manner of Hieronymus Bosch, The Peasant Wedding is a far more naturalistic, even mundane commentary.

Pictorial Sermon Against Self-indulgence

The painting is dominated by the consumption of food and drink. Almost every guest - with the exception of the bride, her parents and their two special guests - seems to be focused on eating: even one of the two musicians stares in anticipation in the direction of the food servers. Certainly no one appears to be interested in the spiritual nature of the occasion - a point which is perhaps being made by the Franciscan monk to the distinguished gentleman on the far right: or is he merely recounting the wearisome details of previous weddings he has attended, to a patient local landowner? In the left foreground, a man is refilling a seemingly endless number of wine jugs - a motif often seen in representations of the Wedding at Cana - and a child is shown sucking its finger, a traditional symbol of hunger. The latter may have been a veiled reference to a famine which had occurred recently in Flanders.

The Mystery of the Groom

Debate continues about the identity and whereabouts of the bridegroom. One candidate is the man in the foreground, neatly dressed in black, calling for more wine. This would fit if the bride was marrying a townsman, a theory which would also explain the presence of a few smart urban guests. Alternatively, taking into account the fact that traditionally the groom was expected to serve the bride and her family, it might be the modest young man who takes dishes from the door carried by the two burly servants.

Peasant-Style Genre-Paintings By Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Within 2 years of completing this work, Bruegel was dead, and Flemish painting was deprived of one of its greatest practitioners. Out of 45 authenticated paintings, about a third are part of the permanent collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: an indication of the Hapsburg Monarchy's keen interest in Bruegel's art. Other famous peasant genre paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, include: The Wedding Dance (1566, Detroit Institute of Arts), The Land of Cockaigne (1567, Alte Pinakothek, Munich), and The Peasant Dance (c.1568, KM, Vienna).



More Works By Pieter Bruegel the Elder

For more paintings by Bruegel, see the following articles:

Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)
Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) (c.1562)
The Tower of Babel (1563)
Hunters in the Snow (1565)
Massacre of the Innocents (c.1565-7)
Parable of the Blind (1568)

• For more about 17th century oil painting, see our main index: Homepage.

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