New imaging technology, created by a project known as Inside Bruegel, offers some insight into these questions by allowing us to pull the painting’s layers apart. The project was developed along with the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna for Bruegel, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, featuring 87 of the painter’s works.
“It’s a huge advancement if you want to look at Bruegel,” said Ron Spronk, a professor of art history at Queen’s University in Canada and one of four curators of the exhibition. “You can actually see the creative process. You can follow the artist in how he makes decisions.”
Using the web tool InsideBruegel.net, anyone can access 12 paintings from the Vienna museum and spend hours zooming in on these details.
Initially funded by the Getty Foundation’s Panel Paintings Initiative, a decade-long effort to train panel paintings restorers, this technology has also been used to study the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, as well as the works of van Eyck, a 15th-century Flemish painter best known for the Ghent Altarpiece, The Adoration of the Lamb.
Known for works such as The Tower of Babel, The Peasant Wedding and The Triumph of Death, Bruegel created meticulously detailed, chaotic worlds when the Spanish Inquisition was sweeping Europe in the 16th century. They parodied religious themes, mocked piousness, presented death and destruction in surprisingly realistic detail and elevated peasants to central roles.
On his deathbed, Bruegel advised his wife to burn his drawings, for fear “that they were too caustic or derisory, either because he was sorry” or because she might get in trouble with the authorities, according to a 1604 biography by Karel van Mander.
“One of the things that art historians debate quite seriously is to what level Bruegel was criticizing the government of that day,” Spronk said. “Those kinds of questions are still debated today.”
In the painting, The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, festivalgoers celebrate on one side, pious observers of Lent on the other.
Looking at an image of this painting made with infrared rays, though, we see that instead of two fish, Bruegel painted a cross — a symbol of the church. He later removed the cross and added the fish, traditional food served during the festival of Lent and symbols of Christ.
As for the painting’s corpses, Sabine Pénot – a curator of Netherlandish and Dutch paintings at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and another of the exhibition’s curators – said that Bruegel didn’t make these changes himself; someone else blotted out the dead body in the cart and covered up the corpse on the ground, although nobody knows who did it or when. Pénot said it may have been in the 17th or 18th century.
Spronk said it was unclear if the painter was an anthropologist ahead of his time, “who wanted to show us images of peasants in their daily life, falling into the water, having a bowel movement in the grass”, or whether he was “pretty much just trying to make us laugh”.
The New York Times