Proverbs and Gallows

Landscape with the Magpie on the Gallows
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Oil on Panel
Hessisches Landesmuseum
Darmstadt, Germany

“There has always been considerable discussion as to the meaning. It cannot be merely a superb bit of landscape painting; it seems to teach a moral or a truth-one which the master deeply felt of else he would not have painted this small panel with such perfection. Critick, recalling how fond Bruegel was of illustrating familiar preverbs, have sought for Netherlandish sayings which might hold the clue to this picture. One of these is “The way to the gallows leads through pleasant meadows.”

The Last Flowering of the Middle Ages
Baron Joseph Van Der Elst

“Bruegel’s most biting social critique is, I think, in his Landscape with Magpie on the Gallows, a painting that may seem quaint but is, at the same time, haunting, mysterious and sharply critical of the social powers of his day. Probably his last work, it is at first glance a quintessential Bruegel. It depicts a scene of serene beauty, an exquisite landscape that includes sky, mountains, a meandering river, meticulously detailed trees, and the buildings of a town.
Amidst the landscape is a scene that clashes almost violently with its beauty. We can hardly miss the gallows and the cross long used for carrying out executions. A bird, most probably a magpie, sits atop the gallows. If we look at the people we see three to the left of gallows who are dancing. There is also another group in the background, who could possibly be on some type of outing. The sharpest contrast to the natural beauty is the peasant in the lower left corner, who is doing nothing less than defacating. What is going on here?
In this striking painting, with its clashing themes, Bruegel is asking us to see the world through the lens of two Netherlandish proverbs well known in his day. Most prominent is the proverb that “shitiing” and “dancing” on the gallows are ways of mocking and laughing at the power of the state. But, no less important, is the secondary proverb, which gives the painting its awkward sounding title. It is that magpie were pictured as gossips and people were hanged because others gossips about them.
In short, Landscape with Magpie on the Gallows is a painting that sharply critiques social authority. The painting is surrounded in mystery because we know neither for whom nor why the work was painted. Also, because Bruegel left no writings about it (or, for that matter, about any other of his paintings), we have no to know whether Landscape with Magpie on the Gallows had any role in these subsequent developments concerning the use of the death penalty, but what can be said is that, once again, Bruegel provided a lens through which to view a morally problematic aspect of our social life.
Give its unusual themes, Landscape with Magpie on the Gallows is not to be seen as simply “another great Bruegel.” When i first came upon it in Darmstadt, Germany, I felt that in a Europe, which had long since abolished the death penalty as a cruel and barbaric punishment, the painting had somehow been marginalized, removed from Bruegel’s other works and placed in a provincial city sough of Frankfort far from Berlin, the major center of German culture (with two other Bruegel paintings). But, a year later, while on a hiking trip in Germany not far from Darmstadt, we came upon a tree in the countryside which, our guide informed us, was often used for hanging “criminals” and those who went “too far” in challenging the authority of the state.
Perhaps the painting’s location in Darmstadt is gentle reminder that, while the locus of power of the state is often in a major capital city, the abuses of that power may well be felt by those who are in distant countryside places.”

Painting Life: The Art of Pieter Bruegel, The Elder
Bonn, Robert L.
Pucker Gallery

In his short biography of Pieter Bruegel Carel van Mander notes that, “In his will he left his wife a painting of a Magpie on the Gallows. By this magpie he meant the babbling of tongues, which he thus delivered to execution.” This “ babbling of tongues” is generally interpreted as gossip but such chattering without meaning or reason might – I think – signify superficial imitation more generally. This emphasis makes sense since imitation appears as a leitmotif in Bruegel commentary, from Ludovicco Guicciardini’s 1567 praise of the artist as a “grand imitatore della scienza & fantasie di Girolamo Bosco” to Ortelius’ epitaph praising his friend as “not just the best of painters but ‘nature’s painter,’ worthy of being imitated by all.” The proposed paper seeks to relate the role of mimesis, imitation, and copying in Bruegel’s Magpie on the Gallows to the humanist understanding of these concepts in his day. If, as I believe, this painting directly addresses imitation as the repetition of a half truth or a truth ill understood, it also presents an ideal of true imitation that is an underlying theme in a number of paintings and prints by and after Bruegel.

In Landscape with the Magpie on the Gallows Bruegel situates the figures and motifs to accommodate a perceiver who must observe the world of the picture from many perspectives – one who has traveled about and used his eyes. This point of view takes into account the defecator, the two observers, and the dancers. Figures who – to paraphrase the sixteenth-century natural historian Conrad Gesner – contract or expand our view of nature. Moreover, the viewer moves visually across a foreground painted in thick dark textured brown strokes beyond the gallows, cross, and mill to the outermost borders of this world (the eschata), a luminous thinly painted distance where earth, sea, and sky meet. Bruegel sets out these extremes and invites us to explore the juxtaposition and the interaction between them. According to my reading of the Magpie on the Gallows,Bruegel encourages the viewer to emulate the artist who, in the creation of his work, drew on both phantasia (the process of discovery and judgment through which models of various objects and courses of events are created) and scientia (speculative reason or inductive study of the rational). Here, the viewer, like the artist, moves from contemplatio to actio, from appreciation of natural art (nature copying God) to comprehending invented or practical art (the artist copying nature). This understanding of the artist’s active ability to remake natural effects in works of art through deep understanding of natural causes bears directly on the qualities of imitation and natural painting so remarked on by Bruegel’s contemporary commentators. It also accords with the humanist view whereby pursuit of the arts might lead to “prudence and experience.” In short, true looking, like a true copy, realizes the ethical as well as the technical potential of the original. My interpretation of the Landscape with the Magpie on the Gallows gives new poignancy and significance to the copies after this painting by Bruegel’s sons Pieter and Jan and, perhaps, suggests why so many subsequent artists were inspired to work “ after Bruegel.”

The True Copy: Imitation and Truth in Pieter Bruegel’s Landcape with the Magpie on the Gallows
Catherine Levesque
The College of William and Mary

“In 1559, Philip left the Netherlands for Spain, and committed the government of country to his sister Margaret, Duchess of
Parma. Resolved on the extirpation of the Reformed heresy, as he termed it, by violence; he left the most particular
injunctions for the execution of the Placards in their utmost rigor.”


“He made the Prince of Orange stadtholder of Holland, Zeland, and Utretch; and afterwards of the country of Burgundy. To
the count of Egmont he allotted Flanders, and the Artois, — To the Lord of Montigny, Tournay and its Districts; the other
provinces to different other noblemen.”

The Magazine of the Reformed Dutch church, Volume 1
William Craig Brownlee,Reformed Church in America. Missionary Society

Netherlandish Proverbs
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
117 cm × 163 cm (46 in × 64 in)
Staatliche Museen, Berlin Germany

Netherlandish Proverbs (detail)

Where the carcass is, there fly the crows – If the evidence points to something it is likely to be true
To shit on the gallows – To be undeterred by any penalty: a gallows bird who will come to a bad end.

“On 4 June Egmont and Hoorn were condemned to death, and lodged that night in the maison du roi. On June 5, 1568, both
men, aged only 46 and 44 respectively, were beheaded on the Grand-Place in Brussels, Egmont’s uncomplaining dignity
on the occasion being widely noted. Their deaths led to public protests throughout the Netherlands, and contributed to the
resistance against the Spaniards.”


“Egmont was naturally indignant at the treatment he had received, while the terrors of the Inquisition were steadily rousing the people to a state of frenzied excitement. In 1566 a confederacy of the lesser nobility was formed (Les Gueux) whose principles were set out in a document known as the Compromise. From this league Egmont held aloof; he declined to take any step savouring of actual disloyalty to his sovereign. He withdrew to his government of Flanders, and as stadtholder took active measures for the persecution of heretics. But in the eyes of Philip he had long been a marked man. The Spanish king had temporized only until the moment arrived when he could crush opposition by force. In the summer of 1567 the duke of Alva was despatched to the Netherlands at the head of an army of veterans to supersede the regent Margaret and restore order in the discontented provinces. Orange fled to Germany after having vainly warned Egmont and Horn of the dangers that threatened them. Alva was at pains to lull their suspicions, and then suddenly seized them both and threw them in the castle of Ghent. Their trial was a farce, for their fate had already been determined before Alva left Spain. After some months of imprisonment they were removed to Brussels, where sentence was pronounced upon them (June 4) by the infamous Council of Blood erected by Alva.”

from Classic Encyclopedia,,_count_of_Egmont

“When the troubles broke out, Egmont was found side by side with Orange, in the van of the malecontents. He was urged
to this rather by generous sensibility to the wrongs of his countrymen, than by any settled principle of action. Thus acting
from impulse, he did not, like William, calculate the consequences came, he was not prepared to meet them; he was like
some unskillful necromancer, who has neither the wit to lay the storm which he has raised, nor the hardihood to brave it.
He was acted on by contrary influences. In opposition to the popular movement came his strong feeling of loyalty, and his
stronger devotion to the Roman Catholic faith. His personal vanity cooperated with these; for Egmont was too much of a
courtier willingly to dispense with the smiles of royalty. Thus the opposite forces by which he was impelled served to
neutrlize each other. Instead of moving on a decided line of conduct, like his friend, William of Orange, he appeared weak
and vacillating. He hesitated where he should have acted. And as the storm thickened, he even retraced his steps, and
threw himself on the mercy of the monarch whom he had offended. William better understood the character of his master,
- and that of the minister who was to execute his descrees.
Still, with all his deficiencies, there was much both in the personal qualities of Egmont and in his exploits to challenge
admiration. “I knew him,” says Brantome, “both in France and in Spain, and never did I meet with a nobleman of higher
breeding, or more gracious in his manners.” With an address so winning, a heart so generous, and with so brilliant a
reputation, it is not wonderful that Egmont should have been the pride of his court and the idol of his countrymen. In their
idolatry they could not comprehend that Alva’s persecution should not have been prompted by a keener feeling than a sens
of public duty or obedience to his sovereign.”

History of the reign of Philip the Second, king of Spain, volume 2.
William Hickling Prescott

And lately, in the tragedy that the Duke of Alva presented to us in the persons of the Counts Horn and Egmont at Brussels,—[Decapitated 4th June 1568]—there were very remarkable passages, and one amongst the rest, that Count Egmont (upon the security of whose word and faith Count Horn had come and surrendered himself to the Duke of Alva) earnestly entreated that he might first mount the scaffold, to the end that death might disengage him from the obligation he had passed to the other. In which case, methinks, death did not acquit the former of his promise, and that the second was discharged from it without dying. We cannot be bound beyond what we are able to perform, by reason that effect and performance are not at all in our power, and that, indeed, we are masters of nothing but the will, in which, by necessity, all the rules and whole duty of mankind are founded and established: therefore Count Egmont, conceiving his soul and will indebted to his promise, although he had not the power to make it good, had doubtless been absolved of his duty, even though he had outlived the other

Michel de Montaigne, Essays
“That the intention is judge of our actions”

Comments are closed.