The earliest and most popular forms of peasant celebrations were the feast and the dance. Whether performed for religious or secular reasons, the “kermis,” or combination fair and feast celebrating a church’s patron saint, served as a release from the daily routine. These were occasions on which to sing, dance, drink and forget about work and worries.
The art of the Low Countries during the Renaissance period found its greatest practioner in Peter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525Ð1569). Although Brueghel was influenced by works showing biblical scenes and classical myths by Italian Renaissance painters, his work remained distinctively Flemish in both subject matter and style. Continuing the tradition of earlier Flemish artists such as the van Eycks in realistically portraying scenes, from everyday life, he was one of the earliest painters to pay attention to the life of the peasantry. In Holland, where pictures of folk celebrations flourished, it was the burgher rather than the state or church who patronized the artist. Middle class taste for familiar, realistic scenes popularized the Brueghel style, including scenes of large groups of robust and very dynamic peasants set against familiar landscapes or in common settings. Unlike the “ideal” humans painted by Italian Renaissance artists, Brueghel’s subjects are truly recognizable people, although they are somewhat generalized and anonymous. Each of his paintings is so realistic that the viewer almost feels invited to participate in the fun.
It is through the artist’s eye that students can be transported back in their imaginary fieldtrip. As students view the slides of the artist’s work, encourage them to become active participants in these public rituals. As they observe or view the spectacle, students may begin to correct themselves with the people in the celebrations. They may begin to draw parallels between Renaissance rituals and those of today. Spend as much time as possible discussing each event. Challenge students to consider not only
is going on in these pain,tings and prints, but
. In order to help students focus their attention on particular aspects of the slides, it might be useful to ask students to start by making a list of all the activities going on in a painting.
“Peasant Dance” represents a church kermis or feast. Students will easily identify the holiday activities portrayed—dancing, drinking, kissing, eating. While some peasants play bagpipes, others seem to be making clumsy movements. Seated at a table are three men representing deaf, dumb and blind. Ask students to describe the people, their clothes, or the colors of the clothes. Is there anything about them that defines these activities as special? Students may point out the use of the color red to brighten up the otherwise earthy tones in the painting. Point out the banner (in red) hanging on the inn, the fool (dressed in red) in the background, the child (in red) dancing in the foreground. Ask students to describe the setting. Why would a dance be outside in the center of the village? Why during the day? What kind of community does this represent? Use some of these same general questions in discussing the following slides with students.
“Peasant Wedding” portrays similarlooking people engaged in various activities. This time, Brueghel uses the barn as the setting. How can students tell it is harvest time? What do the green cloth and paper gown hanging behind the bride indicate? Ask students to identify the activities—people eating rice pudding, playing bagpipes, pouring wine. The use of the color red symbolizes the holiday or special event. Ask the class to try to identify people who may look alike (relatives).
“Feast of Fools” portrays one of the most spectacular festivals held in Antwerp in August of 1561. In this painting Brueghel presents his rendition of a play entitled “Sotte Bollen,” performed at the festival. The Flemish word “sottebol” denotes a ballheaded fool. All of Brueghel’s subjects are ballheaded. The Flemish association of ball-heads with foolishness is based on an old Flemish proverb, “His head turns foolish.” Ask students to describe what is foolish in the painting. Who are the fools? What is foolish about “festival” or holiday behavior? Why do people risk being foolish at festivals? Part of this behavior reflects our need to appeal to our deepest values when we are in a state of “inbetweenness” (that is, in between the segregation of holiday behavior and the rejoining of members to their positions in the social structure.
“The Land of Cockaigne” represents a mythical land where food was already prepared, no one worked, and all was relaxation. The three main figures of the cleric, peasant and knight are all shown as equals, all fat people reclining in languid stupor after a great feast. Ask students to think about why, in reality, this may be a fool’s paradise. Ask students to imagine their own ideal holiday and compare the elements of their concepts to those pictured in Brueghel’s view.
“Wedding Dance” and the “Kermis of St. George” are two other Brueghel works which express the themes described in the previous works.