Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Magpie on the Gallows (1568)


(Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany)

A painting by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30 – 1569). The painting shows a beautiful landscape with a gallows in the center. The gallows divides the painting in two parts. The right side shows quite view of a mountain, a river which leads to the sea and a watermill. the left side offers a more lively picture with a castle of a mountain, a village and peasants in the foreground. One man is playing on a bagpipe while other peasants are dancing. One peasant is seen defecating in the left corner. in the center is a gallows with a magpie on top of it and one sitting on a tree trunk, a cross is visible on the right of the gallows and a skull of a horse. The central theme of the painting is gossip. On the left side the people are living their lives and are fairly oblivious to the dangers in life (the dancing peasants refer to the Dutch proverb 'dancing on a volcano' meaning that someone is celebrating while there are great problems) and 1 peasant literally is 'shitting on the world'. Watching the peasants are the magpies (symbol of gossip). The ignorance of the peasants can have terrible consequences: gossip can lead to death (the gallows, the cross, the tree trunk or ' chopping block' and skull all refer to death). This is perhaps also a reference to the political situation the the Netherlands around 1568. The Dutch war of independence (1568-1648) was starting and the Spanish forces were searching for rebels in order to execute them. The right side and the watermill mean that ' life goes on'. This was perhaps the last painting Bruegel made, shortly after its completion he died and this painting is mentioned in his will - Bruegel left it to his wife. Painting from 1568.

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