Hanging at the Gemäldegalerie art museum in Berlin, Germany, is an unusual painting. Measuring 64 inches by 46 inches, this 16th century oil-on-oak-panel painting is populated by a swarm of miniature men, women, children and animals performing a range of extraordinary and bizarre acts—two men defecating out of a window, a man biting into a wooden pillar, another man banging his head against a wall, a man burying a calf, a man attempting to scoop up spilled porridge, and a woman tying into a bundle what appears to be the devil.
This odd artwork was made by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who was one of the most significant Dutch artist of the Renaissance. Titled Netherlandish Proverbs, the painting is actually a literal illustration of more than one hundred Dutch language proverbs and idioms. The painting was original called, “The Blue Cloak” or “The Folly of the World”, indicating that Bruegel intended not just to illustrate proverbs, but rather to illustrate the universal stupidity of man. Many of the proverbs featured focus on the absurdity of human behavior. Other more serious ones illustrate the dangers of folly, which leads to sin.
Proverbs were very popular in Bruegel’s time and before, and Dutch and Flemish authors of the era used them generously in their works. In year 1500, more than fifty years before Netherlandish Proverbs, the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus published a volume called Adagia, where he compiled more than eight hundred Greek and Latin proverbs. Eight years later, he had expanded the collection to more than three thousand proverbs. The work continued to expand, and by the time Eramus died in 1536, his collection had grown to over four thousand entries. Erasmus’ collection of proverbs remains one of the most monumental ever assembled.
Netherlandish Proverbs wasn’t Bruegel’s first and only painting on the subject of proverbs. In 1558—a year before Netherlandish Proverbs was made— Bruegel had completed a series of Twelve Proverbs on individual panels, as well as Big Fish Eat Little Fish in 1556, but Netherlandish Proverbs is thought to be the first large scale representation of the genre.
The precise number of proverbs that Netherlandish Proverbs contains is somewhat uncertain because modern scholarly interpretations vary, and in some case, more than one proverb might be assigned to the same component in the painting. Critics have identified approximately 112 identifiable proverbs and idioms in the scene, although Bruegel may have included others which cannot be determined because they have either disappeared from usage or the language had changed.
Bruegel has hidden his proverbs in the characters as well as in the buildings and in the landscape in highly imaginative ways. At the center of the painting is a woman placing a blue cloak (hence the painting’s original title) over her husband, indicating that she is cuckolding him. The man biting into the wooden pillar is a hypocrite. The man who’s filling a pond after his calf drowned is one who takes action after a disaster. The person who spills his porridge, will never be able to spoon it all back into the bowl. The two men defecating out of the same hole indicates they are inseparable companions.
Proverb: “She puts the blue cloak on her husband”
Meaning: She deceives him
Proverb: “To be a pillar-biter”
Meaning: To be a religious hypocrite
Proverb: “Never believe someone who carries fire in one hand and water in the other”
Meaning: To be two-faced and to stir up trouble
Proverb: “They both crap through the same hole”
Meaning: They are inseparable comrades
Proverb: “To throw one’s money into the water”
Meaning: To waste one’s money
Proverb: “To be a hen feeler”
Meaning: To be very miserly.
Proverb: “To bell the cat”
Meaning: To carry out a dangerous or impractical plan
Proverb: “To not care whose house is on fire as long as one can warm oneself at the blaze”
Meaning: To take every opportunity regardless of the consequences to others
Proverb: “To drag the block”
Meaning: To be deceived by a lover or to work at a pointless task
Proverb: “To fall from the ox onto the rear end of an ass”
Meaning: To fall on hard times
Proverb: “To kiss the ring of the door”
Meaning: To be obsequious
Proverb: “To wipe one’s backside on the door”
Meaning: To treat something lightly
Proverb: “To play on the pillory”
Meaning: To attract attention to one’s shameful acts