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The Blind leading the Blind

The Parable of the Blind

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1515-1569). Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte – Naples. 1568.

The parable of the ‘Blind leading the Blind’ can be found in Matthew and in Luke’s Gospels, in different circumstances. In Luke it is a small sentence among many others of parables and learning. Luke quotes the parable in a chapter of teachings on integrity.

Jesus told them a parable; “Can one blind person guide another? Surely both will fall into a pit? Disciple is not superior to teacher; but fully trained disciple will be like teacher.” G38

Matthew situates the parable in a chapter on clean and unclean.

Jesus called the people to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into the mouth does not make anyone unclean; it is what comes out of the mouth that makes someone unclean. Then the disciples came to him and said, ”Do you know that the Pharisees were shocked when they heard what you said?” He replied, “Any plant my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind; and if one blind person leads another, both will fall into a pit.” G38

The parable of Matthew and Luke has not only been presented literally as blind leading blind. A recurring theme in pictures and engravings is the image of a donkey instructing other donkeys. The most famous image is probably Goya’s plate 37 of the ‘Caprichos’, ‘Si sabrá mas el discipulo?’ or translated ‘would the student know more’?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the first of a generation of painters from Brabant all called Brueghel, made a painting of the theme of the Blind leading the Blind. There are two villages not far from Antwerp with the name Bruegel; one is close to ‘s Hertogenbosch. This last town, which is more Limburg than Brabant, would be called in English like ‘The Forest of the Dukes’. It is generally accepted that Pieter Bruegel originated from Bosch. Another formidable painter came from ‘s Hertogenbosch: Hieronymus Bosch. He was directly named after the town. Bosch (ca.1450-1526) died before Bruegel’s birth. Yet, Bruegel’s visions are very much alike Bosch’s. Pieter usually named himself as ‘Bruegel’; his sons preferred to write ‘Brueghel’. Pieter must have been born somewhere around 1525. His name appears in the archives of the Antwerp Painter’s Guild around 1551 G9 . His teacher would have been Pieter Coecke van Aelst. He married his master’s daughter Maria in 1563. Karel van Mander, a Brabant painter of the early seventeenth century, and writer of a book on Netherlands painters, told that Bruegel had been to Italy over France. Bruegel would have been as far as Rome.

Pieter Bruegel was not just a painter. He was first and foremost an engraver. He made even designs that were engraved by other artists. He worked for a growing printing industry in Antwerp. Antwerp had become a great metropolis in the sixteenth century. It had taken over the role of Bruges as the most important seaport of western Europe and the reformation had not yet led to the persecutions of Protestants in Brabant, though the wars of religion started in Bruegel’s time. Antwerp was rich and Bruegel had powerful patrons. Bruegel first engraved, then painted. Painting became dominant in his art from around 1558, so that it seems remarkable how many pictures he made in the period between 1558 and his death in 1569. About fifty major paintings are now catalogued of Pieter Bruegel. Many of his pictures have been preserved because they were appreciated by the Habsburg dukes and kings. Philip II, Rudolph II and Archduke Leopold-Wilhelm loved his rustic peasant scenes G9 . The largest collection of his paintings has thus been kept in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna.

The ‘Blind leading the Blind’ of Pieter Bruegel is among his best masterpieces. It strikes the viewer immediately by its forms and colours. The scene represents a group of poor blind people, maybe even beggars. Each holds the shoulder or the walking stick of the predecessor in the line. The line of blind advances out of the frame. But a pit is in the way, as told by Matthew, and the first blind has already fallen in it. The second blind man has stumbled and is falling also. The third is being pulled forward and feels that something is wrong in his step. Inexorably all the blind are drawn into the pit. There is something pathetic about the scene. The blind on the right lies helplessly on his back in the pit. Like a tortoise on its shell, he may never rise. The second blind falls down into a void and he cries out. His cap flies off in front of him. The third feels that something strange is happening, so he puts his head in the air as if wanting to sniff the danger. The fourth also brings up his head, he opens his mouth and wants to hear or catch by whatever other means but his eyes of what is happening. The last but one blind man seems also to sense something of the danger and has that first impression of fear on his face. Only the last one trods on happily, innocently and confident. The scene is not just a representation of the parable. It is also an allegory on our life and how we all unknowingly step into black death.

Bruegel’s painting is a marvel of movement. By using several figures, the artist has been able to show the various stages of the falling. Each blind man is in another state of falling and walking, the movement is caught like by a camera, but a camera that moves from front to back. Bruegel could not have known Caravaggio’s style techniques although the two painters worked almost at the same time. Caravaggio used oblique lines to express movement. We find here, in a painting made in north-western Europe, by such a different genius, the same technique. The blind men in Bruegel’s picture follow the diagonal of the frame, from the upper left to the lower right. This style of composition was very new; it broke entirely with the static vertical presentations of figures in previous Flemish and Brabant pictures. Diagonals had been used before, but not to dynamically draw movement in the figures. Two geniuses used the same technique because it imposed itself in the composition.

Bruegel painted real men, poor blind people here. This is not the elevated, spiritual image as the ones we are used to of the Flemish Primitives. Bruegel painted peasants, villagers, and beggars. He painted the miserable, the feeble. His figures are unshaven, unclean, everyday people. Just as Caravaggio and at the same time in history, Bruegel went very close to the core of the life he saw around him. His paintings were filled with moral messages, but the messages were brought through the smallness of life, not through its most dignified and spiritual side. Bruegel followed no conventions and traditions. He must have been a very strong person to set aside both his tradition of late Gothic, Flemish primitive art and the new tendencies of the Italian late Renaissance, Florentine Mannerism and Venetian grandeur. If Bruegel had been to Rome, then yes he would have been closest to Caravaggio but he certainly avoided the extravagant buoyancy of the Papal artists. Bruegel replaced grandeur by fantasy. His figures are small, squat, plump, laughing and dancing. They are very far from the majestic, imposing nude statues of Michelangelo. A Michelangelo statue needs to be looked at from below; Bruegel’s figures are looked at mostly from above and they are seldom nude. In the ‘Blind leading the Blind’, the viewer is at the best at level with the figures, if not slightly in a higher position. Italian Renaissance had admired the season of spring; Bruegel loved to paint winter scenes and if it was not winter then all his figures were anyhow well dressed in wool and linen.

So also in this picture of Pieter Bruegel: all the blind wear cloaks over heavy cloth as if they walk and sleep outdoors. The scene could be in autumn or in the very late summer, when the leaves of the trees grow golden. The earth is golden too and submerged in light. The light is extremely bright in certain parts of the picture, but is to no avail for the blind men.

Bruegel was a wonderful engraver of landscapes. Some of these skills of a drawer are present in the ‘Blind leading the Blind’. A landscape unfolds in the upper triangle of the picture. We observe a chapel, in which a small church of a village near Brussels has been recognised, and the gently flowing curves of low hills and parts of village houses. There is a small pond, into which the blind may be eventually stumbling. In the lower triangle we discover that the blind men have been walking all the time on the border of a ditch. Unknowingly they have been confronted with danger all along their road. Finally, landscape and figures are shown in all detail and we can admire the skills of a master drawer in the figures, in their dresses and in their gestures.

Pieter Bruegel has made a painting as Jesus would have liked. The message of the Gospels was meant for everybody. But Jesus constantly talked about small people, people with infirmities, beggars, of people robbed, of sick, of the meek. Bruegel painted these. His pictures could not be viewed by the people he painted because his art was recognised very rapidly for the genius art it was. Kings and Emperors bought it for their private collections. Thus, the message of Jesus also reached the splendid palaces of the Habsburgs, but Bruegel’s images were not for his poor neighbours. Whether the Habsburgs only saw in Bruegel’s pictures the greater moral lessons is doubtful. They may have bought the pictures only for its popular peasant scenes, to laugh at the clumsiness of the figures. But in the ‘Blind leading the Blind’ Bruegel created a tragic scene of life. The blind men are laughed at, but the danger and tragedy for all our individual lives are very obvious. Do we not all walk like blind men, pushed and pulled by fate into a dark pit? Do our philosophers, professors, businessmen and scientists know where to lead us? Does the teacher know more than the student does, ‘Si sabrá mas el discipulo’?

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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