“Parable of the Blind Man”. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Timeless Warning to Mankind – Culture and Resistance

Notes and reflections by Nora Hoppe and Tariq Marzbaan

“The Parable of the Blind Man”a tempera painting on canvas (86 x 154 cm) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, datable to about 1568 and preserved in the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples, is a depiction of the biblical parable found in Matthew 15:14: “Leave them alone: ​​they blindly lead the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, they will both fall into the pit.”

The six blind men are shown in various stages of falling and their facial expressions range from confidence to surprise to dismay. They are connected by outstretched hands and wooden slats, in increasing imbalance, like a toppled line of dominoes. These men are painted so precisely that ophthalmologists are able to identify various diseases such as glaucoma, bulb atrophy, distant eyes and corneal leukoma in each of them.





At the time, the Netherlands was under the power of Spain, led by the Duke of Alba (Fernando Álvarez de Toledo), who set up the Council of Troubles (also known as the Tribunal of Blood) in 1567 to prosecute heretic. The council ordered mass arrests and executions to enforce Spanish rule and suppress Protestantism. When Bruegel painted this work, civil unrest was at its height and religious divisions were reaching their ultimate dissociation.

Apparently, the painter did not express his philosophy or political ideas through words. But his paintings seem to convey with determined vigor his views on the society in which he lived. (Pictures speak louder than words…) However, Bruegel’s works are notoriously open to numerous and varied interpretations, sometimes contradicting one another.

What does this picture want to convey to us?

All of the blind, with the exception of the collapsed head, are dressed in various shades of grey, similar to those of the ominous surrounding architectural structures, and their procession up a slope clearly shows a downward trend as they make their way into a dark ditch. . The sloping roofs of the houses these men hail from reinforce the downward striving of an unseen force. The placement of the stark and angular Sint-Anna Catholic Church, which looms ominously in the background of the image, has prompted both pro-Catholic and anti-Catholic interpretations.

An important detail: blind people are not poor beggars or farmers; They’re fairly well dressed and some appear to have full pockets, suggesting they might not be what they seem. They would then not be “poor victims”. Could it be that Bruegel is implying that these men are not only physically but also mentally blind?

A notable aspect of this formation, which is gradually breaking down, is that blind people are usually extraordinarily aware of their surroundings and the ground beneath their feet; They would typically sense a dangerous descent, avoid it, and also feel the vibrations of someone falling in front of them. Can we conclude that these men are deliberately seeking their own downfall?

In the original painting (somewhat damaged over time) a small cow, a shepherd and a fowl must have been found near the tree to the right of the church. Today these elements are no longer visible as they were ground down in the past. Thanks to this, however, we can get an idea of ​​what they look like first copies of the painting made by others, as in the picture below, where we see the shepherd, a humble peasant who pays no attention to this strange series of unfortunates.

It is also interesting to note that even in his painting (or at least his composition of the painting) “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” – Bruegel describes the fall of “a character who represents hubris” while the peasants are immersed in their daily work. In both paintings the theme is autumn… but the life of the peasants, laborers, laborers goes on anyway.

The interpretations of the painting de “The Parable of the Blind Man” have always been many: whether it be a denunciation of the disloyalty of the Spanish authorities, or an indictment of the hypocrisy of established religion, or a warning of the impotence of a divided church, or a mockery of the upper class, which goes with its head in the air, in Compared to those who take care of the land and so on.

But one interpretation that stands out unequivocally is a literal rendering of the adage that bad leadership misleads its followers. And that makes the painting’s meaning everlasting and lets its impact resonate in our time.

Therefore, this painting inspired many other artists and thinkers, including Baudelaire.

American poet William Carlos Williams:

Arnold Hauser (Hungarian art historian and sociologist): “With this work, Pieter Bruegel wanted to show how many misunderstandings there are in human existence.”

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For our time, this image can signal us more than ever: the blindness towards our world and nature, the inability of religion to save its followers, the human disorientation, the downfall of an institution, a power, a state, the unconsciousness and ignorance of the Crowds, the formation of the social swarm, a collective psychosis, the “queuing”, the homologation and the co-ordination of society on the road to collapse.

And today, through a strange twist of fate, the painting no longer shows the farmer and his cattle. They were wiped out over time.

Nowadays, this image makes us think, among other things, of the European countries that belong to NATO and those that are about to join it.

“The Parable of the Blind Man” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is not only a masterpiece of art, but also a precious and timeless reminder to humanity.

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Some references:

https://www.pieterbruegel.org/blind-leading-the-blind/

http://www.hellenicaworld.com/Art/Paintings/en/Part2476.html

https://www.artinsociety.com/perception-and-blindness-in-the-16th-century.html

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