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Brueghel’s “Flemish Proverbs” with explanation: the topsy turvy world

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To be out of one’s league. To put a spoke in wheel. To have a burr under saddle. We all know and use these proverbs. Sometimes they are ironic, often flippant and funny, these statements are the indicators of our mind and intellect. And not only in English. For centuries, the play on words in literature, communication and art has been a hallmark of different cultures, and it remains so.
This is exactly what the Dutch master Peter Bruegel the Elder meant when he created his incredible Flemish Proverbs more than 450 years ago (alternative names are "Dutch sayings" or "The Topsy Turvy World"). This picture was born just between the publication of the "Proverbs" in 1500 with folk proverbs and aphorisms of ancient philosophers collected by the prominent thinker of the Northern Renaissance Erasmus of Rotterdam, and the "Gargantua and Pantagruel" novel by Rabelais in 1564, which portrayed the Proverbial Island.

This relatively small (117 by 164 cm) painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder, painted in oil on wood, is a detailed masterpiece visualizing more than a hundred proverbs. The artist is known for the careful approach to his work. At first we consider it just a village scene with a wide range of subjects, but soon it turns out to be something more significant. It is an "encyclopedia of all human wisdom gathered under a clownish cap", which ridicules wittily the vanity and stupidity of many human actions.

The world of Flemish proverbs is rich and diverse. Some of them are very reminiscent of English counterparts or even translated directly. Others (for example, "to see bears dancing") are no longer in use, and their meaning remains a mystery even to linguistic experts. Still others are just amazingly funny.

Examining this panel, you will find a treasury in which some figures illustrate several phrases. For example, a man in armour and a knife in his teeth, clinging a bell to a cat, means at the same time "to be armed to the teeth", "to put your armour on" (to be angry) and, in fact, "to bell the cat" (to carry out a dangerous or impractical plan).



Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Flemish proverbs. Fragment: Hanging a bell on a cat - to commit a dangerous and unreasonable act
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Flemish proverbs. Fragment: She puts on her husband a blue raincoat - she cheats on her husband
Even colours have certain meanings. So, the meanings "encrypted" in the figure of a woman in a red dress, throwing a blue cloak over a man (in the centre of the composition) cannot be recognized, unless you know the colour symbolism
Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

Read more Symbolism is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-1880s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway, and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if an artist came to quiet despair, but he was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.



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. In 1559, when this work was created, red was considered the colour of sin, and blue often meant deception or stupidity. So this is not just a caring wife who covers her husband with a cloak, she deceives him.

The creative potential and imagination of Brueghel are unbelievable — he managed to put so much sense in one work! We will look at some particularly interesting Flemish proverbs, giving them the English equivalent or explanation. Of course, in order to enjoy the original, you have to go to the Berlin art gallery. However, Google Arts & Culture has an excellent high-resolution image that allows you to study all the fragments in detail.

Upper left quarter

In this part of the picture you can see the familiar sayings "it depends on the fall of the cards" (falling cards), "the die is cast" (dice next to the cards), "fortune favours fools" (or "fools get the best cards"), "to look through one’s fingers", "to lead each other by the nose", "to be pissing against the wind" (in Flemish — "to be pissing against the moon") and "to crap on the world", as well as "the world is turned upside down" (the upturned globe with a cross below).

However, some phrases need clarification. For example, the broom sticking out of the window ("to stick out the broom") means "to have fun while the master is away", and the kissing couple under it ("to marry under the broomstick") means living together without marrying. The expression "to have the roof tiled with tarts" implies one’s wealth; "a hole in one’s roof" means being unintelligent. "The roof has laths" is the equivalent of our "the walls have ears" - there could be eavesdroppers; "An old roof needs a lot of patching up" - old things need more maintenance. The egg in the basket under the canopy refers to the necessity to leave something in reserve ("leave at least one egg in the nest"). Wooden shoes next to a man looking through his fingers indicate a vain expectation ("there stand the wooden shoes"), and the knife hanging on his hand indicates a difficult enterprise requiring skill ("there hangs the knife").
A pot hanging on the outer wall signals that something is going wrong; the bandaged cheek ("have toothache behind the ears") means to be a malingerer. The arbalester who fired twice ("to shoot a second bolt to find the first") repeats a foolish action, and also consumes all supplies ("to shoot out all arrows"). Under him, "they shave the fool without lather" (they trick someone), "two fools under one hood" (stupidity loves company) watch them. The branch sticking out of a window ("it grows out of the window") means something that cannot be concealed, and the man playing music in a cage ("playing on the pillory") draws attention to someone’s shameful actions.

The scene with the peasant running across the field after pigs contains four catchphrases at once: "run as if the ass is on fire" (no explanation needed); "Who swallows fire, defecates with sparks" (do not be surprised at the result when you decide on a dangerous enterprise); "If the gates are open, the pigs run in the bread" (hindsight turns into a disaster); "Grain is smaller — the pig is thicker" (if it decreases for someone, then it increases for someone).

Upper right quarter

The attention is drawn here to the young man at the top of the tower, waving his cloak, and the old man next to him tosses feathers in the wind. The first proverb ("to hang one’s cloak according to the wind") is similar to the English expression "keep one’s eye on the ball", and the second one means fruitless efforts. A little below, the woman staring at a stork symbolizes idle pastime, and the peasant who tries to kill two flies with one stroke recalls the English proverb "to kill two birds with one stone".

Five proverbs are encrypted on the site where three people and cattle collided. When someone has a black period in his life, they say that he "fell from the ox onto the rear end of an ass", and the man who exaggerates his troubles just "goes around shouldering a burden". "To wipe one’s backside on the door" means to treat someone or something lightly, "to kiss the ring of the door" means to be obsequious. And here "one beggar pities the other standing in front of the door" - the fear of competition.

A man "fishing behind the net" misses the opportunities, and "throwing money into the water" wastes them ("spends like water"). "Big Fish Eat Little Fish," and who is "unable to see the sun shine on the water" is jealous of other people’s successes. "They both crap through the same hole" - they are inseparable comrades; "anybody can see through an oak plank if there is a hole in it," says the obvious; "hangs like a privy over a ditch" is something taken for granted.
The crack in the wall indicates that everything could collapse without proper maintenance. The man who is warming himself at the fire recalls the proverb "to not care whose house is on fire as long as one can warm oneself at the blaze" that is, take every opportunity regardless of the consequences to others. "To drag the block" is to be deceived by a lover or to work at a pointless task; "horse droppings are not figs" - do not be fooled by appearances.

The very tiny images come next. "Fear makes the old woman trot" - an unexpected event can reveal unknown qualities; "if the blind lead the blind both will fall in the ditch" - there is no point in being guided by others who are equally ignorant. "The journey is not yet over when one can discern the church and steeple" - do not give up until the task is fully complete; "everything, however finely spun, finally comes to the sun" - nothing can be hidden forever.

The sailor in the boat at the same time "easily sails before the wind" (that is, takes advantage of favourable circumstances) and "keeps an eye on the sail" (is on the alert).

Almost on the horizon, a man craps on the gallows, showing that he is not afraid of any consequences of his actions. Crows fly over the corpse, demonstrating that everyone seeks to get his own benefit, if any. Below, a man looks at geese, wondering: "if I am not meant to be their keeper, I will let geese be geese" (do not interfere in matters that are not your concern, "mind your own beeswax"). And the birds themselves recall the proverb "Who knows why geese go barefoot?" - there is a reason for everything, though it may not be obvious.

Two bears are identified with the phrase "wild bears prefer each other’s company" (that is, peers get along better with each other than with outsiders), and the meaning of the man looking at their dance ("to see bears dancing") is actually lost. Perhaps this phrase means "to starve". The farmer throwing a cowl over the fence is discarding something without knowing whether it will be required later.

The figure swimming against the current feels difficult to oppose the general opinion. The pitcher "goes to the water until it finally breaks" (that is, everything has its limitations), and it is better to make belts from someone’s skin (that is, to get something for the account of another one). And finally, the fisherman "holds the eel by the tail", that is, undertakes a difficult task.

Lower left quarter

This is perhaps the most "densely populated" fragment of the picture. In the lowest corner, a woman who is able to "tie even the devil to a pillow" personifies obstinacy that overcomes everything. The man banging his head against a wall is understandable without explanation, but the fact that one of his legs is barefoot, the other one shod, reminds the viewer of the importance of balance. The lady to the left "carries fire in one hand and water in the other", which warns that she is two-faced; the "pillar-biter" is a religious hypocrite.

Behind their backs the young man "fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe", that is, he does too much to achieve a little; and if something doesn’t go according to plan for the Flemish, he will say "the herring does not fry here". The smoke from the brazier does not harm the saw hanging above it ("what can smoke do to iron?") — there is no point in trying to change the unchangeable; "The herring hangs by its own gills" (you must accept responsibility for your own actions) and in general "there is more in it than an empty herring" (more to it than meets the eye).

A young man with a fish "got the lid on the head", that is, he ended up taking responsibility, and his interlocutor "sits between two stools in the ashes" - demonstrates uncertainty. If you look even deeper into this dark fragment of the picture, you can "find a dog in the pot" - that is to arrive too late for dinner and find all the food has been eaten.

However, here you are still to be deceived, as scissors hanging on a window braid are warning. Behind them, in the depth of the room, the character "always gnaws on a single bone", that is continually talks about the same subject. The man in the red cap, leaning out of the window, is a "hen feeler" that is, he feels very miserly.

Along with people, Bruegel made full characters of paintings and animals. At the beginning of the article, we already said how to interpret the armour-clad warrior with a cat. "The pig pulling the plug [out of the barrel]" symbolizes a catastrophe due to negligence. The shearer with a sheep on his lap reminds that one must "shear them but do not skin them" (that is, do not press your advantage too far), and his companion, trying to shear the pig, reminds that someone has advantages, and someone doesn’t ("one shears sheep, the other shears pigs"). A tied lamb at their feet represents meekness ("gentle as a lamb"). And the peasant "filling the well after the calf has already drowned" takes action only after a disaster.

We have already discussed the woman throwing a cloak on her husband above. Behind her, two busybodies are identified with the phrase "one winds on the distaff what the other spins" that is, both spread gossip. The black dog between them ("Watch out that a black dog does not come in between") hints that everything could go even worse. The man who "carries daylight in a basket" is wasting time; the man who "holds a candle to the devil" flatters and makes friends indiscriminately; and whoever "confesses to the devil" gives secrets to enemies.
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Flemish proverbs. Fragment: Being able to tie even the devil to the pillow is stubbornness that overcomes everything.
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Flemish proverbs. Fragment: Carry a fire in one hand and water in another - to be two-faced
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Flemish proverbs. Fragment: Biting the column - to be a religious prude
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Flemish proverbs. Fragment: Hold the candle to the devil - flatter and make friends indiscriminately. Confess the devil - to divulge secrets to the enemy
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Flemish proverbs. Fragment: A fox and a crane entertained each other - two deceivers always remember their profit. Being a scoop for foaming is a parasite. What is the use of a beautiful plate, if you have nothing to put on it? - beauty is not self-worth
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Flemish proverbs. Fragment: Beat your head against the wall - try to achieve the impossible
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Flemish proverbs. Fragment: Someone shears sheep, and someone shears pigs - one has advantages, another has none
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Flemish proverbs. Fragment: Chickens Feel - Premature Calculations
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Flemish proverbs. Fragment: scissors posted - you are deceived here
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Flemish proverbs. Fragment: Carrying air (steam, light) in baskets - wasting time
The figure in the arch "blows in the ear", that is, it spreads gossips. A fox and a crane feasting nearby — Brueghel knew Aesop’s fable about two deceivers who did not miss their profit. The plate on the edge of the table reminds that "there is no good of a beautiful plate when there is nothing on it" (beauty does not make up for substance), and a skimming ladle behind the fox’s back says parasitism ("to be a skimming ladle"). On the wall next to the eaters are inscriptions in chalk: "chalk up a debt" - to owe someone a favour. The man who "stabbed the pig’s belly" committed an irreparable act.

Lower right quarter

Here we see a man casting roses before swine (a hint of the gospel "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs"), that is, wasting efforts in vain on the unworthy. The character below is ready to humble himself in order to succeed ("to have to stoop to get on in the world"), and the dandy next to him "turns the world on his finger", that is, he has everything under control, he has advantages everywhere. And the spoke in the wheel at his feet is a clear symbol without explanation.

A person who "has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again", that is, once something is done it cannot be undone. And the man spread between two loaves of bread lives from hand to mouth or struggles from paycheck to paycheck, as we would now say. A hoe without a handle, lying on the trestle, probably means something useless; the hatchet on the axe under the tabletop is something whole. However, the meaning of these two characters is not completely clear. The character who is "looking for an hatchet" is actually trying to come up with an excuse, and the lantern in his hand hints that he finally found use for his talents ("here he is with his lantern").

In a pair where each one "pulls to get the longest end", both are trying to gain an advantage. The purse on the belt of one of them hints that love can be bought ("love is on the side where the money bag hangs"). Anyone who "yawns against the oven" wants to take on something that he can’t cope with or "bite off more than he can swallow"; one who "stands in his own light" is very proud of himself. Moreover, "no one looks for others in the oven who has not been in there himself" - that is, to imagine wickedness in others is a sign of wickedness in oneself.
Deeper under the shed, the peasant woman "keeps the hen’s egg and lets the goose’s egg go" (that is, makes a bad decision), and above her, someone "fell through the basket" (that is, his deception was revealed) and now "is suspended between heaven and earth" (is in a difficult position). Outside, the monk "ties a flaxen beard to the face of Christ" - in other words, he hides deceit under a veneer of Christian piety. Above, "two dogs over one bone seldom agree" (argue over a single point), and also "when two dogs fight out who gets the bone, the third one steals it" (self-explanatory).

A man in an iron helmet "sits on hot coals" (we would say "sits on thorns", shows impatience), but "there is no turning the spit with him", that is, he is uncooperative. And also "the meat on the spit must be basted" - certain things need constant attention. The fisherman, who "catches fish without a net," uses the fruits of other people’s labour.
It is easy to see that most of the proverbs visualized by Peter Bruegel the Elder are edifying. That is, this is not just a collection of random proverbs and not entertainment for a bored loafer. The inherent meaning of the picture is personified in the twice-depicted globe — normal and inverted. The scene on the panel is the very "topsy turvy world", which in fact should not exist.

It remains to add that the work was so popular with customers that the artist’s son Peter Brueghel the Younger made about two dozen copies, which mostly do not exactly match with the original.
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