Contemporization as Polemical Device in Pieter Bruegel’s Biblical Narratives

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Scholars have long speculated that references to contemporary political and religious turmoil in the Netherlands can be found in the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. These assertions, however, have largely rested upon the interpretation of a few isolated details, and/or a perceived thematic relevance of the artist’s images to contemporary events and concerns. What the present study demonstrates is that Bruegel did indeed direct his critical attention to the contemporary world, and that he did so by using a form of biblical analogy that would have been familiar to him through his participation in the bibliocentric culture of his time, especially through his awareness of the popular dramas of the rederijkers which at times employed the same rhetorical trope. The study shows through an in-depth analysis of three of the artist’s major paintings, The Procession to Calvary, The Sermon of St. John the Baptist, and The Conversion of St. Paul, that he generated critical commentary upon the spiritual state of the contemporary world and its institutions by effectively mapping a biblical event against contemporary circumstances in order to generate comparative relations between them.


“What Gregory contributes significantly to our understanding of Bruegel with this study is his insistence on pictorial meaning. He takes pictures seriously at the level of details and their relationships as well as the overall representation of a scene, often in conscious dialogue and variation with its recent pictorial tradition. His analysis is both attentive and coherent, formal as well as intellectual, fully hermeneutic. Like the pictures themselves, it self-consciously engages with Bruegel's contemporary world because the artist did so. In a dialectic between past and present, the spiritual journey of these depicted scenes held novel relevance for sixteenth-century Antwerp viewers, and now can hold new significance for us in the twenty-first century as well.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) Dr. Larry Silver, University of Pennsylvania

“Joseph Gregory’s impressive study of three Bruegel paintings penetrates the artist’s reactions to the dangerous problems of his place and time. He accomplished this by examining the inventive way Bruegel painted everyday people into religious themes in order to make veiled political statements, without having to pay for such transgressions with his head. By penetrating these veils — an achievement akin to breaking a code — Gregory explains why a circle of Bruegel’s educated admirers cherished the artist’s content as well as his form. Three major paintings — The Procession to Calvary, the Sermon of St. John the Baptist, the Conversion of St. Paul — are analyzed in a knowing way, one that extends the newer scholarly tradition of recognizing that these Biblical stories have far more meaning than that which first meets the eye. Gregory’s new work will become a must-read for all who teach, study, or admire the works of an extraordinary artist, and for those who are fascinated with the evolution of Biblical usages in 16th century Europe. The pellucid text of this new book could become a model for scholars who do not want to thicken their discussion with imported theoretical jargon or with denseness for the sake of impressive obscurity.” – . Kenneth C. Lindsay, Professor Emeritus of Art History, Binghamton University

"In his examination of Procession to Calvary, The Sermon of St. John the Baptist, The Conversion of St. Paul, and other biblical subjects Dr. Gregory locates the political and socio-religious iconography of Bruegel used to comment on a range of events of his own day, including the Inquisition, the dangerous 'hedge sermon' movement, and deadly acts of repression by secular authories. In doing so Gregory discloses how Bruegel's parades of peasents and grotesques pointed not to the distrubed fantasies of his own mind but instead to the disturbed realities of his world." - Art Book News Annual

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Background Consideration
2. Transcendence and Topicality in The Procession to Calvary
3. Divine Folly and Earthly Fools: The Sermon of St. John the Baptist
4. Scaling the Mountain of God: The Conversion of St. Paul
Selected Bibliography

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