Tag Archives: 16th-century Netherlandish paintings

#FineArtFriday: The Dutch Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, revisited

Pieter_Brueghel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_ProjectOne of the best allegorical paintings of all time is The Netherlandish Proverbs (also known as The Dutch Proverbs) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which was painted in 1559. A master at humor, allegory, and pointing out the follies of humanity, Brueghel the Elder is one of my favorite artists.

Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Year: 1559
Medium: Oil-on-panel
Dimensions: 117 cm × 163 cm (46 in × 64 in)
Location: Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Quote from Wikipedia:

Critics have praised the composition for its ordered portrayal and integrated scene. There are approximately 112 identifiable proverbs and idioms in the scene, although Bruegel may have included others which cannot be determined because of the language change. Some of those incorporated in the painting are still in popular use, for instance “Swimming against the tide”, “Banging one’s head against a brick wall” and “Armed to the teeth”. Many more have faded from use, which makes analysis of the painting harder. “Having one’s roof tiled with tarts”, for example, which meant to have an abundance of everything and was an image Bruegel would later feature in his painting of the idyllic Land of Cockaigne (1567).

The Blue Cloak, the piece’s original title, features in the centre of the piece and is being placed on a man by his wife, indicating that she is cuckolding him. Other proverbs indicate human foolishness. A man fills in a pond after his calf has died. Just above the central figure of the blue-cloaked man another man carries daylight in a basket. Some of the figures seem to represent more than one figure of speech (whether this was Bruegel’s intention or not is unknown), such as the man shearing a sheep in the centre bottom left of the picture. He is sitting next to a man shearing a pig, so represents the expression “One shears sheep and one shears pigs”, meaning that one has the advantage over the other, but may also represent the advice “Shear them but don’t skin them”, meaning make the most of available assets.

You can find all of the wonderful proverbs on the painting’s page on Wikipedia, along with the thumbnail that depicts the proverb.

My favorite proverbs in this wonderful allegory?

Horse droppings are not figs. It meant we should not be fooled by appearances.

He who eats fire, craps sparks. It meant we shouldn’t be surprised at the outcome if we attempt a dangerous venture.

Now THAT is wisdom!


Credits and Attributions:

The Netherlandish Proverbs (Also known as The Dutch Proverbs) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder 1559 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Wikipedia contributors, “Netherlandish Proverbs,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Netherlandish_Proverbs&oldid=829168138  (accessed May 3, 2018).

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#FineArtFriday: History Painting, Titus (with self portrait of Rembrandt) by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn 1626

History Painting, Titus (with self portrait of Rembrandt) by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn 1626

  • Artist: Rembrandt  (1606–1669) Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
  • Title: Historical Scene.
  • Inscriptions: Monogram and date bottom right: RH 16[2]6
  • Object type: painting
  • Genre: history painting
  • Depicted people: Titus
  • Date: 1626
  • Medium: oil on oak panel
  • Dimensions: Height: 89.8 cm (35.3 in); Width: 121 cm (47.6 in)
  • Collection:   Museum De Lakenhal

What I love about this Painting:

This is one of Rembrandt’s earliest history paintings. The young artist went all out to compose and execute this painting. He scoured the city for props, and found old armor and weapons. Then he dressed the players richly in the finest garments of his own day, so as to befit a beloved and respected emperor.

Wikipedia says: Rembrandt’s portraits of his contemporaries, self-portraits, and illustrations of scenes from the Bible are regarded as his greatest creative triumphs. His self-portraits form a unique and intimate biography, in which the artist surveyed himself without vanity and with the utmost sincerity.

The level of detail in the weaponry and richly worked garments is remarkable, as are the faces and features of each of the players. Emperor Titus is portrayed as slightly larger than life, noble, wise, and kind.

In the background, hidden by the scepter, we find Rembrandt himself, the witness who happened to come upon the scene and is looking on with wonder. Of the witnesses, he alone is shown dressed in the unadorned muted gray woolen clothing of a common man.

We know Rembrandt was well educated in history, and admired the Emperor Titus greatly, as he named his only surviving son after him.

About the Roman Emperor Titus, the Subject of this Painting (via Wikipedia):

Vespasian died of an infection on 23 June 79 AD, and was immediately succeeded by his son Titus. As Pharaoh of Egypt, Titus adopted the titulary Autokrator Titos Kaisaros Hununefer Benermerut (“Emperor Titus Caesar, the perfect and popular youth”). Because of his many (alleged) vices, many Romans feared that he would be another Nero. Against these expectations, however, Titus proved to be an effective Emperor and was well loved by the population, who praised him highly when they found that he possessed the greatest virtues instead of vices.

One of his first acts as Emperor was to order a halt to trials based on treason charges, which had long plagued the principate. The law of treason, or law of majestas, was originally intended to prosecute those who had corruptly “impaired the people and majesty of Rome” by any revolutionary action. Under Augustus, however, this custom had been revived and applied to cover slander and libel as well. This led to numerous trials and executions under TiberiusCaligula, and Nero, and the formation of networks of informers (Delators), which terrorized Rome’s political system for decades.

Titus put an end to this practice, against himself or anyone else, declaring:

“It is impossible for me to be insulted or abused in any way. For I do naught that deserves censure, and I care not for what is reported falsely. As for the emperors who are dead and gone, they will avenge themselves in case anyone does them a wrong, if in very truth they are demigods and possess any power.”

Consequently, no senators were put to death during his reign; he thus kept to his promise that he would assume the office of Pontifex Maximus “for the purpose of keeping his hands unstained.” The informants were publicly punished and banished from the city. Titus further prevented abuses by making it unlawful for a person to be tried under different laws for the same offense.  Finally, when Berenice returned to Rome, he sent her away.

As Emperor he became known for his generosity, and Suetonius states that upon realizing he had brought no benefit to anyone during a whole day, Titus remarked, “Friends, I have lost a day.”


Credits and Attributions:

History Painting, Titus (with self portrait of Rembrandt) by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn 1626

Wikipedia contributors, “Titus,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Titus&oldid=950453618 (accessed April 24, 2020).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Rembrandt Historical Painting 1626 (Detail, with self-portrait).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Rembrandt_Historical_Painting_1626_(Detail,_with_self-portrait).jpg&oldid=369318658 (accessed April 24, 2020).

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Keeping the Goliardic Spark Alive #amwriting #NaNoWriMo

This week has been a struggle, what with cooking a Thanksgiving feast for my extended family and trying to keep my wordcount output up for #NaNoWriMo, so today I am reprising an essay written in 2015, on irreverent humor, the Carmina Burana, and medieval frat boys. Enjoy!


Crazy humor at the expense of the establishment is nothing new. It’s part of the Human Condition. And to that end, I love goliardic poetry.

Carl Orff and his amazing cantata, Carmina Burana, catapulted me into the poetry of the Goliards. But who and what were the goliards?

During what we call the Middle Ages, noble and wealthy middle-class families had a tradition that the eldest son inherited everything, the second son went into the church, and the younger sons went to the crusades.

The old-fashioned practice of “primogeniture” or bestowing the rights of inheritance upon the eldest son, often leaving younger sons penniless, is responsible for some of the most ribald and hilarious poetry of the middle ages. This was because the church had far too many clergymen who weren’t all that enthusiastic about having been forced into taking the ecclesiastical path, and who became, for lack a better definition, medieval frat-boys.

There was such an abundance of well-educated clergy that most were unable to gain a decent appointment within the church, despite good family connections.

Having been educated at the finest universities of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and England these men weren’t content to spend their lives hidden away in a rural monastery painstakingly copying the great books written by others when they could be writing their own.

Going indie (or rogue) is nothing new.

They took their show on the road, going from town to town, protesting the growing contradictions within the church through song, poetry, and performance.

The disillusionment and disappointment they experienced regarding the hypocritical, abusive, greedy state of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church of that time, was fertile soil for medieval mockery on a grand scale. 

Not unlike the current political climate here in the US.

Most goliardic poetry is written in Latin, as Latin was the language of commerce, and every educated person understood and read it. Remember, if someone could read, they were well off, and if they could read, they read Latin. Those were the people the indie was writing books for in the early Middle Ages.

Some of the goliards’ more popular church services when they would arrive in a new town included celebrating the annual Feast of Fools, a brief social revolution, where roles were reversed, and power, dignity, and impunity were briefly conferred on the lowest of the social order. Thus, the town drunk or the local fool would be made mayor for a day, feted and given the status of a lord for a day.

As you might imagine, the nobility was unimpressed with that particular “holy” festival, and rarely participated.

Even less popular with those in power was the Feast of the Ass. From Wikipedia, the holy fount of all knowledge: A girl and a child on a donkey would be led through town to the church, where the donkey would stand beside the altar during the sermon, and the congregation would “hee-haw” their responses to the priest.

So, I guess you could say the goliards were a traveling Monty Python type of show, painfully hilarious and sometimes too good at what they did for the censor’s comfort.

Their point was that too much emphasis was placed on the pageantry and trappings of faith in Medieval Europe.

But the disaffected goliards couldn’t run forever. Their satires were almost always directed against the church, attacking even the pope, and the church didn’t take that well. Heresy, during the Middle Ages, was not something you wanted to be accused of, as the famous heretic and collector of goliardic poetry, Peter Abelard would tell you. Yet, though he was harshly punished, he remains one of the most respected philosophers and freethinkers of the Middle Ages.

By the 14th century, the word goliard had become synonymous with minstrel, no longer referring to this group of rebellious clergymen. However, a century after the overabundance of bored poor-little-rich-boy clergymen that spawned the goliards had been squashed by the church, that tradition of irreverence was carried on by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

For me, Orff’s cantata was a ‘gateway drug.’ From first becoming intrigued by the libretto to  Carmina Burana, I moved on to “the hard stuff,” studying modern translations of the works of an author who was highly influenced by goliardic poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer.

Of course, that meant I had to go to the source, learning a great deal about the roots of our modern English language at the same time.

Chaucer was unique, in that he wrote in Middle English, the vernacular of his time, rather than in Latin. Because of this, and the enduring hilarity of his works, Chaucer is considered the Father of English Literature.

The goliardic works that survive to this day still surprise us with how relevant the concepts put forth in those poems and tales are to contemporary society.

It is through the surviving literature and song that the truth of a past culture is discovered. The true nature of the common medieval man and woman survives in the rebellious, ribald literary tradition of the naughty clergy, the goliards.

We may be separated in time by centuries, but we are not too different from those ancestors of ours who survived the Dark and early Middle Ages by getting drunk and singing bawdy songs and poking fun at the establishment.


Credits and Attributions:

Keeping the Goliardic Spark Alive, by Connie J. Jasperson, first appeared on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on September 28th, 2015.

Wikipedia contributors, “Feast of the Ass,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Feast_of_the_Ass&oldid=796169305

(accessed November 24, 2017).

Image, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca 1559  PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

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#amwriting: When reality meets fantasy

800px-Flexham_coppice_bluebells

Bluebells in Sweet Chestnut coppice at Flexham Park, Bedham near Petworth, West Sussex, England. via Wikimedia Commons

Over the weekend, I discovered how to make charcoal, in a sustainable way, learning how it was done in medieval Europe. Of course, I learned about this by going to the internet, to one of my favorite go-to sites for research: Medieval Histories.

I’ve read before about how the massive production of charcoal in the Middle Ages was a major cause of deforestation—everyone needed it to heat their homes, and entire economies depended on it.

However, as time went on, people learned how to create sustainable sources of wood for both firewood and carpentry, by coppicing. Coppices were cut and regrown cyclically so that a steady supply of charcoal would be available.

Archaeological evidence for this style of forestry management goes back 5,000 years in England. Timber in the Sweet Track in Somerset (built in the winter of 3807 and 3806 BC) has been identified as coppiced lime trees (also known as linden or basswood).

According to the Fount of All Knowledge, Wikipedia: Coppicing is an English term for a traditional method of woodland management which takes advantage of the fact that many trees make new growth from the stump or roots if cut down. In a coppiced wood, young tree stems are repeatedly cut down to near ground level. In subsequent growth years, many new shoots will emerge, and, after some years the coppiced tree, or stool (what we think of as a stump), is ready to be harvested, and the cycle begins again.

So, in doing research for a tiny portion of my new, just begun work-in-progress, I learned something new.

Over the years, when I tell people what I write, some have laughed and said I’m lucky I write fantasy because I can make any old thing up and it will fly.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I spend hundreds of hours researching the most trivial details for every book I write. If I get it wrong, it’s because I failed to do the research. In the process, I’ve learned as much as many medieval scholars about how people dressed, what they ate, how they earned a living, how they preserved food and every intimate detail of their lives that is researchable.

I know all of this because I read scientific papers written by experts on the subject, all of which are available to us via the internet. My files are full of the fruits of other peoples efforts, with the sources documented and the authors credited so I know where to go to find out more if I need to. Lists of links to websites for further research is critical because when one book goes to press, a new book is already falling out of my fevered mind and onto the paper.

Readers are smart. If something is impossible, and you don’t somehow make it probable, you will lose your readers. The best way to make the impossible probable is to mix your fantasy with a good dose of real history. Be historically accurate as often as you can, so that when your blacksmith makes a weapon, readers who know about smithing will not be jarred out of the story by inaccuracy.

Most of the time, these things you spend untold hours researching will only get one line in your narrative, but if that line is inaccurate or impossible your readers will know you were too lazy to do it right.

This is my short list of go-to websites for in-depth, accurate information for when I am writing. They are fairly self-explanatory:

Medieval Histories  http://www.medievalhistories.com

Academia http://www.academia.edu/

NASA https://www.nasa.gov/

Physics http://www.physics.org/

Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Grammarist  http://grammarist.com/

The Wedding Dance, c.1566 (oil on panel) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69)

The Wedding Dance, c.1566 (oil on panel) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69)

I’ve learned a great deal from reading the literature of medieval times. If you really want to know how people lived, read a modern translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. They were bawdy, irreverent, and loved nothing more than a good joke. If you want to know how they dressed, look no further than the “The Wedding Dance” a literal painting, steeped in allegory by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The internet is your friend, and researching your fantasy novel can be incredibly entertaining. For me, that is what slows me down more than anything. I spend far too many, but happy, hours on Wikimedia Commons, looking at 16th-century Netherlandish paintings.

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