Pieter Bruegel's Magpie on the Gallows

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Aberdeen]On: 06 October 2014, At: 01:34Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal ofArt HistoryPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/skon20

    Pieter Bruegel's Magpie on theGallowsAnne Simonson aa School of Art & Design , San Jose State University , SanJose, CA, 951920089, USAPublished online: 01 Sep 2008.

    To cite this article: Anne Simonson (1998) Pieter Bruegel's Magpie on the Gallows ,Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History, 67:2, 71-92

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  • Pieter Bruegel's Magpie on the Gallows

    ANNE SIMONSON

    The Magpie on the Gallows (Fig. 1) is an enigmaticpainting. Two observers at left foreground surveya tree-framed panoramic river valley landscape.At the center of the composition stands a gallowswith a magpie perched on the crossbeam; thegallows is flanked to the right by a cross withbricks scattered around it and to the left by a pairof crossed trees, tall enough to appear above thedistant horizon line. Groups of peasants danceand walk up towards the gallows from the leftmiddleground village; to the right a tiny figurecrosses a bridge leading into the watermill.A shadowy figure defecates in the immediate leftforeground. Continuing across the foregroundare a second magpie on a tree stump and anequine skull situated in line with the left andright vertical posts of the gallows. How mightBruegel's contemporaries have explained this cu-rious composition or read its diverse elements?

    An examination of the intellectual climate ofmoral maps and emblems developing in the 1560soffers some clues. Bruegel's friends, patrons, andprofessional associates1 included Abraham Orte-lius, the great geographer, scholar, and collector;Christopher Plantin, the prominent Antwerpprinter;2 and humanists, artists, and writers. Aunique document for assessing their intellectualmilieu is provided by the friendship book, theAlbum Amicorum, which Ortelius circulated from1574 to 1596 and in which he wrote, "with tearsin his eyes," a posthumous entry about his friendPieter Bruegel. Participants in the Album projectwere men, and one woman, highly conversant inclassical Latin language and literature, occasion-ally knowledgeable in Greek and Hebrew. Awareof developing emblematic imagery, they wereinterested in multilingual displays and theirvisual equivalents.3

    In memory of his friend, Ortelius gatheredtogether a series of classical prototypes:

    The painter Eupompus, asked which of his pred-ecessors he should take for a model, is said to havementioned numerous names and finally replied thatit is Nature herself that should be imitated, not theartist. This applies to our Bruegel, whose pictures,as I always say, bear the stamp of Nature rather than

    This Bruegel painted many things that cannot bepainted, as Pliny said of Apelles, In all his worksmore is always communicated than is actuallypainted. According to Iamblichus,5 Eunapius saysthe same of Timanthes. Painters who paint hand-some models in the flower of their age and who seekto introduce to the picture a charm and grace oftheir own distort the total portrait and are equallyuntrue to the model and to the true form. OurBruegel is free from this fault.6

    Thus, in proper humanist fashion, Ortelius ex-tended his comparison beyond the standardApelles7 to encompass Eupompus8 and Timanthes,contemporaries of the fifth-century painterZeuxis. The cluster of these complicated refer-ences would, like Bruegel's paintings, have per-mitted the average Antwerp Latinist to movebeyond the literal, to assemble a variety of mentalpictures, and to imagine the contemporary painterin a classical milieu.

    Ortelius must have had in mind Pliny's de-scription of the famous painting of Iphigeniaawaiting her doom: Timanthes showed the at-tendants overwhelmed with sorrow while hidingthe face of Agamemnon and leaving his grief tothe viewer's imagination.9 Cicero, too, referred toTimanthes and Apelles as models who knewprecisely how far to go in their art and identi-

    Scandinavian University Press 1998.ISSN 0023-3609

    Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, LXVII, Hafte 2, 1998

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  • 72 Anne Simonson

    Fig. 1. Pieter Bruegel, Magpie on the Gallows Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt.

    fied impropriety as the greatest fault which apainter or poet could commit.10 The observationthat Bruegel consistently communicated morethan is painted sets up his work as a puzzle to bedeciphered, with final interpretation open toeach viewer. Bruegel's humanist treatment in theAlbum Amicorum probably reflects the painter'sown erudition, and the ironies and multivalentreadings permitted by his work place Bruegelsmoral landscape in the vanguard of contempo-rary interests.11

    The Album Amicorum, also its individual en-tries and, for that matter, Bruegel's Magpie on theGallows, are analogous to any number of six-

    teenth-century endeavors. Christopher Plantin'sgreat project for the Biblia regia or Biblia polyglottais indicative of both the contemporary interestin finding many ways to say the same thing andthe conflicts diversity invited.12 Erasmus's Ad-ages, collected from as many authors as possible,was explained in terms of the "literal and figura-tive use" and the "custom or legend or geographi-cal or historical fact" at the root of each saying.13

    Such practices constituted a transition betweenthe four-fold meanings of the exegetical traditionand the new emblematics. And it was the sensustropologicus, the "significance of things and factsfor the individual and his destiny, for his path to

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  • Pieter Bruegel's Magpie on the Galhws 73

    salvation and conduct in the world," which ulti-mately dominated.14

    An emblem could demand the reconciliationof opposites. Conversely, any given element mightimply the need for moral choices and hence theobservation that everything in Nature could beinterpreted in terms of its inherent good or evilqualities.15 When in 1566 Marcus Antonius Gillistranslated Sambucus's Emblemata from Latin intoDutch for the Antwerp reader, he explained thegenre in a remarkably clear manner. He introducedthe Greek origin of "emblems" as ornaments:

    In order that these ornaments please not only theeye by their artful and precious glamour, but enter-tain also the beholder's mind with sharp-wittedmoral edification, some have in addition inventedcertain signs and figures, accompanied by few wordsto urge the human mind to ponder on what thesemight mean. This is one reason why they made themin such a manner that they were not so clear andsimple as to be understood by everyone, howeverstupid and uncivilized; on the other hand, however,not all that obscure and ingenious either, so thatevery intelligent human being may understand themthrough his own reflection. This understanding,which is brought about on the basis of differentmedia, procures all the more pleasure to the humanmind because this specific form of cognition isproper to him alone.16

    Gillis, again, placed final responsibility for inter-pretation on the viewer.

    Bruegel's work of the 1560s correspondedchronologically to the introduction of emblembooks.17 The Magpie on the Gallows, usually re-garded as the painter's last work and strikinglydifferent in basic composition from his earlieroeuvre, was, I would suggest, designed for anewly developing audience. Contemporary em-blem theory described the pictura and the motto("luttel woorden") as well as the subscriptio("veerssen") which clarified the obscurity of com-bined word and picture.18 The proportion ofimage to text, of course, differentiates Bruegel'swork from emblems, but the organizing princi-ples and expected viewer response are analogous.

    In Bruegel's experiment, recognizable but pe-

    culiarly juxtaposed iconographical schema sub-stituted for a written text. The change in ap-proach fooled Karel Van Mander, our documen-tary source for the painting.

    Many of Bruegel's strange compositions and comi-cal subjects one may see in his copper engravings.But he has made many skillful and beautiful draw-ings; and he supplied them with inscriptions which,at the time, were too biting and too sharp, andwhich he had burned by his wife during his lastillness, because of remorse, or fear that disagreeableconsequences might grow out of them. In his will heleft his wife a picture of "A Magpie on a Gallows."By the magpie, he meant the gossips which hedelivered to the gallows. In addition he had painteda picture in which Truth triumphs. According to hisown statement, this was the best thing painted byhim.19

    Van Mander, then, connected the Magpie to theworks with inscriptions while also linking thepainting syntactically to an allegorical or em-blematic representation of Truth.20 Proverbially,excessive chattering of the bird was like babblingsomeone onto the gallows: "(iemand) aan de galgklappen."21 Curiously, this proverb appears no-where else in Bruegel's extant repertoire. Al-though Van Mander's literal recounting of thetitle is insufficient to explain the painting, hecharacterized the verbal/visual interplay that un-derlies the scene.

    Contemporary sources demonstrate the ad-vantages of ambiguity and careful behavior.22 By1563 Bruegel had already left the cosmopolitanAntwerp for Brussels which had only one-fifththe population.23 He established a shop inHoogstraat, in the elegant Spanish quarter wherethe Duke of Alva lived after his arrival in 1567and close to the palace of Orange-Nassau.24 Theanticipated iconoclastic riots broke out in 1566in Antwerp and elsewhere.25 Plantin, who hadsettled in Antwerp in 1549 and established a solidreputation as printer/publisher by 1549, was in1562 accused of having printed a heretical book;three of his assistants were arrested, and Plantinescaped prison only by fleeing to Paris.26 Othermembers of Ortelius's friendship group main-

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  • 74 Anne Simonson

    tained delicate balances between court appoint-ments and, as exemplified by Marnix de Saint-Aldegonde's 1570 The Beehive of the Holy RomanChurch, a scathing attack on Catholicism, theexpression of opposition views.27 Recent work onBruegel has focused on the artist's social andpolitical commentary that avoided the specificitysure to have given him trouble.28 In the Magpie onthe Gallows, however, Bruegel abandoned thelarge proverbial figure groups characteristic ofthe Beekeepers, the Land of Cockaigne, or theBlind Leading the Blind, all dating from shortlybefore, in favor of two small observers seen fromthe back; this is a painting designed to be exam-ined in a different spirit.29

    Iconographical elements in the Magpie and thepainting's compositional structure are the visualequivalents of words and syntax for the sixteenth-century humanist, and no one reading of thepainting could be true to "the total portrait"Ortelius described. Indeed, multiple overlays ofmeaning and the viewer's conscious choice of apath among them are critical to a contextualreading. We might "ponder on what these mightmean" (as would students of Sambucus'sEmblematd) and explore possible threads of asixteenth-century discussion.

    The Magpie

    Van Mander started here and took a proverbialroute. The conjunction of opposites seen in thebird's striking plumage might have been anotherstarting point for talking about the painting. Theblack and white could be read as a mix of goodand evil, as in the opening of Parzifal,i0 or be seento invoke a traditional Christian context for goodand evil, as in illustrations of Genesis31 or theApocalypse.32 Yet the bird herself might be seen asevil, a thief.33 The bestiary tradition, however,still popular in early printed books, in polemicalprints,34 and then incorporated into emblems,35

    was generally positive:

    The word PICAE (magpies) stands for "poeticae"(imitators) because they can imitate words in adistinct voice like a man. Even if they are not able to

    speak real talk, as they hang down through themiddle of the tree branches uttering their unseemlychatter, yet they do imitate the sound of the humanvoice.36

    The related woodpecker,

    which gets its name from Picus, the son of Saturn,because he used the creature in auguries. For theysay that this bird is something of a soothsayer by thefollowing evidence, viz: in the trees on which itbuilds its nest, one cannot stick a nail where it sat,or anything else that remains for a long time, with-out its falling out at once.37

    The humanist interested in rhetoric or the artist"born under Saturn" may have felt natural affini-ties for these birds and turned to Pliny for thedescription of a colleague:

    A certain kind of magpie is less celebrated [than theaforementioned parrot] because it does not comefrom a distance, but it talks more articulately. Thesebitds get fond of uttering particular words, and notonly learn them but love them, and secretly ponderthem with cateful reflection, not concealing theirengrossment. It is an established fact that if thedifficulty of a word beats them this causes theirdeath, and that their memory fails them unless theyhear the same word repeatedly, and when they are ata loss for a word they cheer up wonderfully if in themeantime they hear it spoken. Theif...