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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Pieter Brueghel the Elder,

The parable of the blind. Pieter Bruegel the Elder
1568, oil on canvas, 86 × 154 cm
Naples, Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte


Die Parabel von den Blinden. Pieter Bruegel d. Ä.

1568, Öl auf Leinwand, 86 × 154 cm
Neapel, Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte

The Blind Leading the Blind (or Blind or The Parable of the Blind, Dutch: De parabel der blinden) is a painting of 1568 by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Executed in distemper on linen canvas, it measures 86 cm × 154 cm (34 in × 61 in).[a][2] It is the earliest surviving painting to depict the Biblical parable of the blind leading the blind from the Gospel of Matthew 15:14. The painting is in the collection of the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy.

Painted the year before Bruegel's death, the painting has a bitter, sorrowful tone, which may be related to the establishment of the Council of Troubles in 1567 by the government of the Spanish Netherlands. The council ordered mass arrests and executions in order to enforce Spanish rule and suppress Protestantism. However it is not clear if the painting was meant as a political statement. The placement of Sint-Anna Church of the village Sint-Anna-Pede has led to both pro- and anti-Catholic interpretations.

The Blind Leading the Blind reveals Bruegel as a master of observation. Each figure has a different eye affliction, including corneal leukemia, atrophy of globe and removed eyes. The figures hold their heads up so as to make better use of their other senses. The diagonal composition reinforces the off-kilter motion of the six figures falling in progression, a concern with motion that has been seen as prefiguring the advent of film.

The Blind Leading the Blind is considered one of the masterworks of painting for its fine, accurate detail and dynamic composition. Copies include a larger version by Bruegel's son Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and the work has inspired literature such as poetry by Charles Baudelaire and William Carlos Williams and novels such as Gert Hofmann's The Parable of the Blind.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Pieter Brueghel the Elder,
The parable of the blind , detail

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Pieter Brueghel the Elder,
The parable of the blind , detail

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Pieter Brueghel the Elder,
The parable of the blind , detail

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Pieter Brueghel the Elder,
The parable of the blind , detail


They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch.
—Jesus, Matthew 15:14

The painting depicts a procession of six blind and disfigured men. They pass before a path bordered by a river on one side and village with and a church of a village on the other.[3] Their guide has fallen on his back into a ditch and, because they are all linked by their staffs, seems about to drag his companions down with him.[4] In the background a cowherd stands indifferent to the peril of the blind men.[5]

Bruegel based the work on the Biblical parable of the blind leading the blind from the Gospel of Matthew 15:14, Christ referring to the Pharisees.[2] According to art critic Margaret Sullivan, Bruegel's audience was likely as familiar with classical literature as with the Bible; Erasmus had published his Adagia two years before Bruegel's painting, and it contained the quotation "Caecus caeco dux" ("the blind leader of the blind") by Roman poet Horace.[6] The two blind men in the parable are expanded to six in Bruegel's painting. He does not dress them in the peasant clothes that typifies his later work.[7] The first blind man's face is not visible; the second twists his head as he falls, perhaps to avoid landing face-first. The shinguard-clad third man, on his toes with knees bent and face to the sky, shares a staff with the second, by which his is being pulled down. The others have yet to stumble, but the same fate seems implied.[1]

Background details, the faces and bodies of the blind men, and the church in the background are rendered in exceptional fine detail.[8] Bruegel's settings tended to be fictional, but that of The Blind Leading the Blind has been identified[b][8] as the village Sint-Anna-Pede,[9] and the church as Sint-Anna Church.[10]

The work is a tüchlein, light paintings that use distemper made from pigment mixed with water-soluble glue. Tüchlein do not preserve well, but The Blind Leading the Blind is in good condition and has suffered no more than some erosion,[11] such as of a herdsman and some fowl in the middle ground.[12][c] The grain of the linen[1] canvas is visible beneath the delicate brushstrokes.[13] The work is signed and dated BRVEGEL.M.D.LX.VIII.[14]

The Blind Leading the Blind's austere tone is achieved through a colour scheme of mostly grey, greens brownish-red and black pigments. The diagonal movement of the bodies creates a dramatic tension[15] in the foreground which is divided diagonally from the landscape background.[16]
Painting detail of a man stumbling onto his back away from the viewer.
Bruegel demonstrates mastery of foreshortening in depicting the leader of the blind men.

The painting is one of four surviving Bruegel paintings in distemper.[d][17] In contrast to earlier painters' depictions of the blind as beneficiaries of divine gifts, Bruegel's blind men are stumbling and decrepit,[18] portrayed without sympathy. The eyeless figure would have been interpreted as a man who had suffered punishment for wrongdoing or fighting.[19]

Bruegel painted with the empirical objectivity of the Renaissance. In earlier paintings the blind were typically depicted with eyes closed. Bruegel gave each of his blind men a different ocular affliction, each painted with a realism that allowed identification of their conditions by later experts,[18] though there is still some diagnostic disagreement.[20] Jean-Martin Charcot and Paul Richer published an early account, Les difformes et les malades dans l'art (1889), and Tony-Michel Torillhon followed with more research on Bruegel's figures in 1957.[1] The first man's eyes are not visible; the second has had his eyes removed, along with the eyelids: the third suffers corneal leukoma; the fourth atrophy of globe; the fifth either blind with no light perception, or photophobic; and the sixth had pemphigus[1] or bullous pemphigoid.[21] Charcot and Richer noted Bruegel's accuracy in portraying the blind men facing not forward but with their faces raised in the air, as they would have had to rely on their senses of smell and hearing.[22]
Painted portrait of a bearded man in fancy armour
Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba, governor of the Spanish Netherlands and initiator of the Council of Troubles

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525 – 1569) achieved fame for the detailed accurate and realistic portrayals of peasants. He painted on inexpensive linen canvas and oak panel and avoided scenes of magnificence and portraits of nobility or royalty. Bruegel's works were popular with the common people the paintings were crowded with.[23] The peasants Bruegel at first depicted were featureless and undifferentiated; as his work matured their physiognomy became markedly more detailed and expressive.[8]

The sixteenth century was a time of rapid advances in learning and knowledge, and a move towards the empirical sciences—the time of Copernicus's heliocentric theory in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, Gutenberg's printing presses. Several of Bruegel's contemporaries were leading minds in their fields, such as Andreas Vesalius and Abraham Ortelius. Vesalius brought great advances in the study of anatomy via direct observation of dissected bodies; his observations motivated many artists to pay greater attention to the accuracy of the anatomy depicted in their works. The cartography of Ortelius influenced Bruegel's landscapes.[24]

In 1563, Bruegel and his new wife moved to Brussels, the seat of government in the Spanish Netherlands (1556–1714). In 1567 the governor of the Netherlands, the Duke of Alba, established the Council of Troubles (popularly called the "Blood Council") to suppress non-Catholic religions and enforce Spanish rule, leading to mass arrests and executions.[2] Whether Bruegel had Calvinist sympathies or intended a political message in The Blind is not clear, but the evidence indicates he likely held critical views of the Catholic Church.[25] A bitter, sorrowful tone characterizes his last works, such as The Blind and The Magpie on the Gallows.[26]

In ancient Greece the blind were depicted in myths as having received gifts from the gods, and blind singers were held in high regard. In Mediaeval Europe, the blind were depicted as the subjects of miracles such as Bartimaeus in the healing the blind near Jericho in Mark 10:46–52. By the early Renaissance such painted depictions of saints and miracles fell out of favour, particularly in Protestant lands.[18] Under Catholic influence, the blind and poor were the recipients of alms, but under Protestant thinking, such good deeds were not thought as any guaranteed way to heaven, and the path one's life took was believed the will of God. Regard for the poor and infirm dimished, and beggars saw their circumstances deteriorate.[27] In popular literature of the time, the blind were depicted as rogues or targets of pranks.[19] The parable of the blind leading the blind also appear as one of the illustrated proverbs in Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs (1559).[e][28]
Painting of a busy village scene; a detail in the background of a procession of three blind men is highlighted
Bruegel's depiction of the blind leading the blind (inset) in Netherlandish Proverbs (1559).
Photograph of superimposed moments of a bird in flight
Bruegel's work anticipates the chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey (1882).

In contrast to the posed, static figures typical of paintings of the time, Bruegel suggests the trajectory of time and space through the accelerated movement of the figures. Critics Charcot and Richer wrote that the concept of visualizing movement was not formulated until the 17th century,[9] and that Bruege prefigurs motion pictures[29] and Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.[9] Medical researcher Zeynel A. Karcioglu sees the painting anticipating the 19th-century chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey.[1] Dutch film director Joris Ivens stated, "If Bruegel were alive today he would be a film director."[9]

The church in the background, identified as Sint-Anna Church,[10] has sparked much commentary. One view holds that the church is evidence of the painting's moralistic intent—that while the first two blind men stumble and are beyond redemption, the other four are behind the church and thus may saved. Another interpretation has it the church, with a withered tree placed before it, is an anti-Catholic symbol, and that those who follow it will fall following a blind leader as do the men in the ditch. Others deny any symbolism in the church, noting that churches frequently appear in Bruegel's village scenes as they were a common part of the village landscape.[27] Zeynel A. Karcioglu suggests the church represents indifference to the plight of the handicapped.[8]
Painting detail of a church. Its steeple is to the left. A withered tree stands before the church.
Sint-Anna Church in the village Sint-Anna-Pede. The inclusion of the church has led to conflicting interpretations of the painting.

Art historian Gustav Glück noted incongruities in that the beggars are well-dressed and carry staves and full purses. Academics Kenneth C. Lindsay and Bernard Huppé suggest Bruegel may have implied that the blind men represent false priests who ignored Christ's admonitions not to carry gold, purses, or staffs.[f][30]

Analyst Charles Bouleau wrote of the tension in Bruegel's compositional rhythms. The picture is divided into nine equal parts divided by a set of parallel oblique lines. These are divided by another network of lines at constant angles to the first.[31] The composition invites the reader to follow the action rather than dwell on the individual figures. The blind men resemble each other in dress and facial features,[32] and they appear as if they succeed one another in a single movement culminating in a fall,[9] beginning on the left with "rambling, then hesitation, alarm, stumbling, and finally falling". The succession of heads follows a curve, and the further the succession, the greater the space between heads, suggesting increasing speed.[32] The steep roofs of the background houses contribute to the compositions feeling of motion.[1]

The Blind Leading the Blind is considered one of the great masterpieces of painting.[33] Bruegel's is the earliest surviving painting of the parable of the blind leading the blind, though there are two earlier Dutch engravings known,[27] including one attributed to Hieronymus Bosch that Bruegel likely knew and imitated.[5] Bruegel's paintings have enjoyed worldwide popularity and have been the subjects of scholarly works in disciplines even outside of the arts, such as medicine.[34]

Bruegel's depictions of beggars in paintings such as The Blind Leading the Blind left a strong influence on those who followed him, such as David Vinckboons. Hieronymus Wierix incorporated a copy of The Blind Leading the Blind into the series Twelve Flemish Proverbs.[35] A forgery attributed to Jacob Savery called The Blind appeared c. 1600 bearing a false inscription dating it 1562.[36] Bruegel's son Pieter Brueghel the Younger painted a larger copy with extra details, including a flock of sheep, that now hangs in the Louvre.[1] Italian Baroque painter Domenico Fetti may have been influenced by Bruegel's painting when he executed his own version of the parable (c. 1621–22); Bruegel's was in the collection of Ferdinando Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, who was Fetti's patron.[37]
A painting of a procession of six blind men. The guide has fallen, and the rest are about to fall.
The Blind Leading the Blind, copy by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

French poet Charles Baudelaire's "The Blind"[g] was inspired by Bruegel's painting.[38] The painting was the subject of several other poems, including those by Germans Josef Weinheber and Walter Bauer,[39] and American William Carlos Williams who wrote a series of poems on Bruegel's paintings including "Parable of the Blind" which focuses on the meaning of the composition—a word that appears three times in the poems eight tercets. The figures stumble diagonally downward, and—[40]

... one
follows the other stick in
hand triumphant to disaster
—William Carlos Williams, "Parable of the Blind", Pictures from Brueghel (1962)

Bruegel's painting served as a model for Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck's one-act The Blind.[41] West German writer Gert Hofmann's 1985 novel The Parable of the Blind features Bruegel and the six blind men. To accomplish a realistic portrayal, Bruegel repeatedly has the men cross a bridge and fall into a creek in midwinter until their expressions achieve the desolation Bruegel believes represents the human condition.[42] Claude-Henri Roquet (fr)'s 1987 historical novel Bruegel, or the Workshop of Dreams has Bruegel painting the blind out of fear of losing his own eyesight.[8]

The Blind Leading the Blind and The Misanthrope were discovered in the collection of the Count Giovanni Battista Masi of Parma in 1612 when Ranuccio I Farnese, Duke of Parma confiscated Masi's property for his part in a conspiracy against the House of Farnese. How the painting arrived in Italy is unknown; it is known that Masi's father Cosimo returned from the Netherlands in 1595 with a number of Netherlandish paintings.[11] The painting hangs in Naples, Italy, in the National Museum of Capodimonte.[43]

The painting was the largest of 1568.[1]
Of Bruegel's oeuvre only the Naval Battle in the Gulf of Naples (1560) also has an identifiable setting.[8]
The herdsman can be seen in later derivative paintings, such as the one by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.[12]
The others are The Adoration of the Kings (1564), The Misanthrope (1568) and the recently-attributed Wine of Saint Martin's Day.[17]
The proverb in Dutch is: "Als de ene blinde de andere leidt, vallen ze beiden in de gracht."
(English: "When one blind man leads another, they both fall into the ditch.")[8]
Matthew 10:10

"Les Aveugles"

Contemple-les, mon âme; ils sont vraiment affreux!
Pareils aux mannequins; vaguement ridicules;
Terribles, singuliers comme les somnambules;
Dardant on ne sait où leurs globes ténébreux.

Leurs yeux, d'où la divine étincelle est partie,
Comme s'ils regardaient au loin, restent levés
Au ciel; on ne les voit jamais vers les pavés
Pencher rêveusement leur tête appesantie.

Ils traversent ainsi le noir illimité,
Ce frère du silence éternel. Ô cité!
Pendant qu'autour de nous tu chantes, ris et beugles,

Eprise du plaisir jusqu'à l'atrocité,
Vois! je me traîne aussi! mais, plus qu'eux hébété,
Je dis: Que cherchent-ils au Ciel, tous ces aveugles?
—Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal (1861 edition)


Karcioglu 2002, p. 58.
Hagen & Hagen 2003, p. 191.
Charcot & Richer 1889, p. 74.
Delevoy & Skira 1959, p. 124.
Silver 2012, p. 52.
Sullivan 1991, p. 463.
Brown 2010, p. 179.
Karcioglu 2002, p. 57.
Delevoy & Skira 1959, p. 126.
Vries 2007, p. 232.
Edwards 2013, p. 60.
Edwards 2013, p. 71.
Bordin & D'Ambrosio 2010, p. 30.
Grossmann 1966, p. 203.
Delevoy & Skira 1959, pp. 125–126.
Huxley & Videpoche 1938, p. 52.
Orenstein 2001, p. 31.
Hagen & Hagen 2003, p. 192.
Hagen & Hagen 2003, p. 194.
Karcioglu 2002, pp. 61–62.
Karcioglu 2002, p. 59.
Delevoy & Skira 1959, p. 124; Charcot & Richer 1889, p. 74.
Karcioglu 2002, p. 55.
Karcioglu 2002, p. 56.
Hagen & Hagen 2003, pp. 191–192, 194.
Orenstein 2001, p. 9.
Hagen & Hagen 2003, p. 193.
Karcioglu 2002, p. 57; Lindsay & Huppé 1956, p. 384.
Delevoy & Skira 1959, p. 126; Funch 1997, p. 120.
Lindsay & Huppé 1956, p. 384.
Bouleau 1963, p. 123.
Funch 1997, p. 120.
Huxley & Videpoche 1938, p. 51; Delevoy & Skira 1959, p. 126.
Karcioglu 2002, pp. 55–56.
Orenstein 2001, p. 77.
Orenstein 2001, p. 78.
Askew 1961, pp. 23, 36.
Burness 1972–1973, p. 161.
Denham 2010, p. 18.
Heffernan 2004, pp. 163–165.
Nöller 1998, p. 147.
Hafrey 1986.
Richardson 2011, p. 10.

Works cited

Bordin, Giorgio; D'Ambrosio, Laura Polo (2010). Medicine in Art. Getty Publications. ISBN 978-1-60606-044-5.
Bouleau, Charles (1963). The Painter's Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art. Harcourt, Brace & World. OCLC 000475285.
Brown, S. Talmond (2010). The Shadow of Beauty: Art, Faith, and the Culture of Freedom. Tate Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-1-61566-961-5.
Charcot, Jean-Martin; Richer, Paul Marie Louis Pierre (1889). Les difformes et les malades dans l'art (in French). Lecrosnier et Babé. OCLC 5864933.
Delevoy, Robert L.; Skira, Albert (1959). Bruegel: Historical and Critical Study. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. Skira. OCLC 566008722.
Denham, Robert D. (2010). Poets on Paintings: A Bibliography. McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0-7864-5658-1.
Funch, Bjarne Sode (1997). The Psychology of Art Appreciation. Museum Tusculanum Press. ISBN 978-87-7289-402-7.
Grossmann, Fritz (1966). Bruegel: The Paintings, Complete Edition. Phaidon.
Hagen, Rose-Marie; Hagen, Rainer (2003). "A Downward Path: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Blind Leading the Blind 1568". What Great Paintings Say. Taschen. pp. 190–196. ISBN 978-3-8228-1372-0.
Heffernan, James A. W. (2004). Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-32314-5.
Huxley, Aldous; Videpoche, Jean (1938). The Elder Peter Bruegel, 1528 (?)–1569. Wiley Book. OCLC 48700972.
Nöller, Jens (1998). The hero as voice (in German). Königshausen & Neumann. ISBN 978-3-8260-1423-9.
Orenstein, Nadine M. (2001). Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints. Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 978-0-87099-990-1.
Richardson, Todd M. (2011). Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Art Discourse in the Sixteenth-century Netherlands. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7546-6816-9.
Silver, Larry (2012). Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-2211-1.
Vries, Andre de (2007). Flanders : A Cultural History: A Cultural History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-983733-5.


Askew, Pamela (March 1961). "The Parable Paintings of Domenico Fetti". The Art Bulletin (College Art Association) 43 (1): 21–45. doi:10.2307/3047929. JSTOR 3047929.
Burness, Donald B. (Winter 1972–1973). "Pieter Bruegel: Painter for Poets". Art Journal (College Art Association) 32 (2): 157–162. doi:10.2307/775727. ISSN 0004-3249. JSTOR 775727.
Karcioglu, Zeynel A. (January–February 2002). "Ocular Pathology in The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind and Other Paintings by Pieter Bruegel". In Marmor, Michael. Survey of Ophthalmology 47 (1): 55. doi:10.1016/S0039-6257(01)00290-9.
Lindsay, Kenneth C.; Huppé, Bernard (March 1956). The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 14 (3). American Society for Aesthetics. pp. 376–386. JSTOR 427055.
Sullivan, Margaret (September 1991). "Bruegel's Proverbs: Art and Audience in the Northern Renaissance". The Art Bulletin (College Art Association) 73 (3): 431–466. doi:10.2307/3045815. JSTOR 3045815.

Other sources

Edwards, Jamie Lee (2013). Still Looking for Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Thesis). University of Birmingham. Retrieved 2013-08-28.
Hafrey, Leigh (1986-01-26). "Eyeless with Bruegel". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-08-27.

Further reading

The Blind Leading The Blind at the Capodimonte Gallery


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