Art · Mind The Gap! · Reality

Pieter Breughel The Younger, Calvary (1605)

The Breughels, father and son, were painters in the modern style. It is said of the younger Breughel that he copied a lot of his father’s works; this isn’t the point. The younger Breughel depicted them in the way he could as an individual.

The composition of the painting is important: there are three trees, and the meaning of these would have been immediate for the mediaeval soul
Pieter Breughel the Younger: Calvary.
Painted in 1605 it is a very different from his father’s more chaotic depiction.
Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht.

Whilst this is a religious painting that has a traditional theme, the manner of its depiction is very new. Instead of the formed ranks of poe faced onlookers and an unhappy but very staid Christ Jesus, we have here a gathering of real people and a still unhappy but far more mobile image of Jesus as he trudged his way up that hill. Now, Breughel’s father had painted this scene in 1564 but the two paintings are quite different. Perhaps I’ll have to take a few piccies when I’m next in Vienna, where it is held. This is its picture from Wikipedia.

The composition of the painting is much more clear in the younger Breughel’s depiction; his father’s has far less coherence or immediate structure.

Note: for a larger image, open this picture on Wikipedia (in a new tab by right clicking with your mouse). Right click HERE.

Jesus Christ Bears The Cross.

The rankings in heaven are there for good reason. We see this in the different way the mobile sea is formed of ever moving water when compared to the fixed, immovable earth.
He is depicted in the middle of the painting, as is appropriate, but also nearer to the bottom rather than central as was traditional.
Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht.

He is depicted in the middle of the painting, as is appropriate, but also nearer to the bottom rather than higher up as was traditional. Holy figures were always ranked from top to bottom – today those who cannot think for themselves rank themselves in a similar way, but do so out of ignorance. The rankings in heaven are there for good reason. We see this in the different way the mobile sea is formed of ever moving water when compared to the fixed, immovable earth. Water is very different from earth, and in that it has movement, it lives in a different realm – in short, it is higher in the natural hierarchy of heaven. Yet we would have no life if all was water! The one needs the other, just as the lowliest creature needs the blessing of the highest we can perceive with our eyes, the sun.

Christ is shown here below, what is more, he is shown in communion with those around him. Those around him are looking to Him, and He to us, the onlooker. In mediaeval art, only the holy and the saintly would look at you – everyone else would have a distracted expression that was looking elsewhere.

Christ is the closer still, in that he is given a European face: whilst this is not historically true, this is a spurious argument to the mediaeval mind. Closeness implies brotherhood and in those days, brotherhood meant you shared the same colour of skin. The times when humans would free themselves of heredity were still unfolding at the turn of the sixteenth century.

Christ is humbled, visibly so. But in being humbled, He is the greater in that He is in immediate contact with those around him. The manner of His depiction states clearly: there is no barrier between Me (Christ) and you, the human. Any barriers that are created are created by humans who fear what Christ might bring them. Today there are all too many fears, and all too little acceptance that Christ lived and walked on this earth. It reminds me of Bernard Shaw’s bringing home a pebble from his visit to Palestine. He said that when walking on the shore of Lake Galilee he took a pebble from the shore, knowing that Jesus may have taken it in his hand. That simple knowledge was enough for Shaw’s innocent faith. And when it comes to our relationship with Christ, if it is not innocent – cleansed of all that corrupts – it is worthless.

The Three Trees.

There are three trees, and the meaning of these would have been immediate for the mediaeval soul that was steeped in the stories and fairy tales – and the wisdom they held. In this case they represent the three crosses on Calvary.

This wisdom would have been in the form of symbolism, a feeling for synchronicities and representation that today has been overwhelmed by the power of abstract thought. Not that abstract thought is bad in itself, the problem arises when it acts in a manner that is abstracted from reality. Which is what my series ‘Beyond Newton’ discusses in its erratic way. The finest thoughts arise from those that accept that feeling is something independent of thinking.

So: we have three trees. Notice that the one on the right has lost many of its leaves – and that it stands under the darkening sky that followed the eclipse at the time of Jesus’ death. It is also a metaphor for the cross upon which the unrecantant thief was crucified. The two others stand in the light and are filled with life, and thus represent that which the heavens bestow on us. Not just the life hereafter, but that which gives us life here on earth.

Right now.

We cannot do anything but that we eat, and for that there is the sun and the earth – from which the plants grow and are nurtured by the sun. However, they also need a healthy, damp soil as much as they need the blessing of the sun’s rays. Heaven and earth.

The Middle Tree.

I know, there are two of them! To the mediaeval mind, it would be irrelevant: it shares the same space, thus it is one. The intellectual mind will bicker and dispute where innocence accepts – but that is our challenge today: to find that innocence whilst we retain that capacity to dispute. That we would dispute in a way that brings forth new understanding, not crush it. Mark my words carefully, ye that wert Plato: creative thinking is far more than just stacking up facts to decide your own fate. A fate you could decide the more effectively by living in the present.

One thought on this is that this tree is in the middle: as such, not only stands as representative of the wood of Christ’s cross, but of Christ Himself. Note too that this tree – the foremost of the two; again, its relative position is as important to its symbolic status as its geographical one – is also representative of Christ Himself. Whilst it stands before the rest, it is the same species as the rest and quite as verdant. For all their disparate sizes; size has no meaning when it comes to quality. In heaven, the greatest is as mighty as the minute. Do not think that simply because a person has status in this world that he has any in heaven…

The Left-Hand Tree.

They look to the distance, which always depicts our relationship to our inner feelings; but also to the future.
The two figures depicting our time – but as seen as the distant future.
Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht.

Before this tree stand two figures, they are also representative of a trait in humanity. They speak of our time – a time Breughel would have understood all to well, albeit be unable to imagine in its full horror. Firstly they stand with their backs to us; nor are they looking to the centre of attention in the painting. They look to the distance, which always depicts our relationship to our inner feelings; but also to the future. That which is to come. Today, most people in their abstracted world dream away their lives in imagining what they will do when they finish work. Or when they’ve finished, what they will have for dinner. Or when dining, what entertainment they will enjoy. And when entertained, will be so scatter-brained as to wonder what drink to have next. Or goodness only knows what else. They never have time for the present, which is, after all, where we experience our lives! I assure you of this: live in the present and you will desire for little else.

For this pair have desires that have torn the living bark from the tree. The bark that brings life to the tree. For in forever looking to the future, we ignore the present we live in. It is that present which is where we can find innocence: for the pleasures of the present have no more need than what heaven and earth bring us. Be it sunshine or rain, darkness or cold. Each have their virtues, each have their gift. If we cannot tolerate them, we must ask ourselves why it is that we cannot tolerate them. For it is not natural to go around shirking from the very things that we depend on for our existence.

The bark shorn from the tree also represents a thinking that has penetrated beneath the ‘bark’ of nature. In doing so, it seeks answers not in the reality of the world around us, but from out of the depths of our own being – and today that largely means our subconscious.

The Windmill On The Horizon.

This is Breughel. If you know what I’m talking about, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht.

Calvary And The Darkness.

The scene in the top right hand quadrant of the painting is gloom itself. With the cartwheel stuck on top of a pole, it evokes thoughts of Heironymous Bosch and his seemingly crazed and fanciful world. That Bosch was neither crazed nor fanciful cannot detain us here; for that is merely a modern intellectual viewpoint that has no grasp of the qualities of the mediaeval mindset.

What is interesting is that the crucifixion is not highlighted – yet the onlookers are.
A Boschian depiction; his father’s rendition is even more so!
Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht.

Again, let us look at what we see. That, after all, nobody can contradict – unless, like some American journalist, they start inventing facts rather than reporting them. What is interesting is that the crucifixion is not highlighted – yet the onlookers are. Christ has to be in the middle, because everybody knows that from scripture; yet He is depicted as little more than a rag lain across the cartwheel. So: since I do not know the reason for doing this, I cannot speak of why it was done. Much of what we see is easy to interpret for the simple reason that it is depicted – but it is at this point that my own powers run out of road. I’m not going to invent something just to show that I think I know. I speak of what I do know, and not of fripperies and fancies.

There are two clear aspects to note here, firstly that most of the people depicted are turned away from us. Unlike the last time, they are looking towards Christ – and so are we, the onlooker. Thus we are in communion with those who are in the painting, we share their stance – and we may also share their attitude. The mediaeval person would certainly be open enough to do this; the modern person is largely closed off (see my post on the subconscious for more on this – including the comments section which is revealing. Click here for more.).

The other aspect is the dark sky: a modern mind will overlook this because they will say it was mere happenstance that it occurred at that moment. But then, the modern mind misses a very great deal because it cannot grasp the delicacy of certain synchronicities. The dark sky was on account of an eclipse; that we all know. But what is important is that those who crucified Jesus had no idea that there would be an eclipse at that time.

The point here is that they were innocent of its coming to pass. It is always important to note when a person does something without foreknowledge that subsequently becomes a fateful act. They didn’t know that an eclipse would occur – yet they unwittingly chose this time.

That it did occur implies that there is more to the happening than meets the mind, as it were. In short, Christ was crucified. That’s fair enough. Then the eclipse occurred, which startled those around and made them fearful, as is right and proper for eclipses are not what you expect on a Friday afternoon be it the eve of Passover or any other. The point I want to make is that Christ was crucified at this time because of the upcoming eclipse. They were working out of their subconscious, but not in the way that is ugly and evil as is so common today.

We have an event taking place on earth and at the same time there is an event in the heavens. Suffice it to say that the event was pertinent to both. I cannot explain it any better.

Speaking To The Viewer.

Breughel’s world was one that was staid and where little changed. It was in its own, limited way, more like Egypt than anything we know today. In Breughel’s life, he would have seen as much change as we see in the course of a year. The people Breughel was speaking to knew only their own lives, as was appropriate for those times. That they could think and decide things for themselves is demonstrated in the gathering around Christ where they are all shown differently. Two hundred years before and they would all have done as they were bidden – and yes, they were sheeple. Those times it was acceptable to be a sheep in this way; for the times made it impossible for them to do evil. Today it is not and the evil such people can do is now out of all order.

For all their acting like sheep in a flock.

The Temple.

The Temple in Jerusalem is displayed in a way that Breughel could display it: he depicted it out of what he knew. In knowing nothing else, how could he imagine it looking like anything else? Whilst a modern thinker (shown by the variety of expressions on his faces) he was not travelled in the way we modern people are. Nor was there any archaeology to speak of. There was little to tell Breughel how to depict the Temple. I will add that he lived in Catholic Belgium, which only a few decades ago had burned Tyndale at the stake: whilst Breughel would be able to speak Latin, it’s unlikely that he’d have had a bible to study any details of the Temple that are there for us to read today. Bibles were very much the possession of the Church, along with the proscribed paths that the priests trod through it.

Only in that it wasn't Christian, it couldn't have a cruciform shape – so instead he made it round.
The Temple at Jerusalem. A round, ‘Unchristian’ building with Flemish gables!
Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht.

Thus, Breughel depicted the Temple as only he could: as a European building with Flemish gables. Only in that it wasn’t Christian, it couldn’t have a cruciform shape – so instead he made it round.

Note the tree that cuts across the image of the building: this is also the tree which has had its bark stripped. The thinking that strips bark will also deny religion, for in stripping away reality we look beneath it and not at it.

That the Temple looked nothing like the historical reality means nothing. Those looking at his painting would know that it wasn’t Christian, yet it was still an important building. Its size and structure would tell them that much. There are times size matters: it’s what art is all about. Knowing when it matters and when it doesn’t.

The thinking in the above paragraphs about Breughel’s depiction of the Temple of Jerusalem are central to my forthcoming post on Fake News and how it is created. And how to spot it.

Late Mediaeval Painting.

The later mediaeval period can be characterized by the way ordinary people are portrayed. As you can imagine, it was only a few brave souls that tried this: many artists toed the well trodden line of still, almost abstract faces. The forces of change would eventually overwhelm them – as those that brought about Breughel’s genius were swamped by the inner fears that swept through humanity in the lead up to World War One, and have seen artists withdraw into a very modern abstraction.

Supremus, 1915-16
What does it say to you?
Is it what Malevich was thinking… or not?

Like Malevich’s “Supremus 1915-16.” It is as devoid of feeling as the thinking that claimed it to be the essence of pure feeling – in short, nobody looking at it would know what the fuck Malevich was prattling on about.

Breughel, on the other hand, painted out of what he saw as reality. Indeed, if you visit any Belgian city today, you will see those self same houses because many of them are standing in the same spot where Breughel himself saw them. Painting and any kind of art is to communicate what the artist sees and believes to others. If it moves the viewer in a way that punctures the forces that keep a person from interacting, it will have succeeded in its job. In our day and age, they are too few and the forces that keep people from interacting too great – which is why Malevich is popular. Because you don’t have to relate to what he was trying to say to you: you can relate to what you think he was trying to say to you. The two are only the same when the artist has done his job well.


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