A nightmare landscape. It could have perfectly been a Hieronymus Bosch, but it’s not. All these demons and grotesque creatures that populate the canvas seem to come out of an enchanted neverland. The Book of Revelation is, after all, a neverland: perfectly surreal; perfectly disturbing.
Of all the Flemish and Netherlandish masterpieces at the Old Masters Museum in Brussels, the collection’s most prized jewel is ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ by Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. So prized is this artwork that the Museum decided to resort to new technologies to allow visitors to fully understand and appreciate the multitude of figures and symbols in it; the exhibition is absolutely fascinating, and so is the story of the painting. What story?
It’s the story of pride and the price paid for folly and sin. Lucifer’s pride gets him and other rebel angels to be expelled from heaven, condemned into a dark and hopeless life, and transformed into horrible demons and freaks. We see in the painting how the Archangel Michael and other good angels chase the fallen angels with swords and trumpets in hand; victory is won. Below them, the fallen angels seem to have suffered a horrendous metamorphosis. Deformed anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures clearly correspond to exotic creatures that were filling catalogues at the time (armadillo, pufferfish, etc), while other elements seem to be inspired by the discoveries in the Americas and the contact with the Ottomans (scimitar, helmets, turbans). Different musical instruments can be spotted; the battle between Good and Evil does not lack a ‘soundscape’ of course. Bruegel was a man of his time, curious about the New World, an admirer of Bosch’s art, and deeply inspired by a socio-cultural phenomenon that was on the rise during his lifetime: the Cabinet of Curiosity. A thorough examination of the painting would betray a fascination with such cabinets, their mark omnipresent in his work.
The ability of Bruegel to juggle and integrate all these worlds effortlessly into one dynamic whole gives his artwork a life almost entirely of its own: vibrant, intricate, and almost throbbing…everything you would expect from an apocalypse. Every creature in the painting is interesting on its own, but the total effect is way more than just the some of all parts. I don’t know how long I spent in front of this artwork, but it was long enough to spot Lucifer (top left), the spiral of damned souls pouring from heaven (top centre) and a Medusa-like head (bottom right). I was never a big fan of Flemish/Netherlandish art’s severity and sobriety, but the layers of meaning and symbols in the works of Bosch, Jan van Eyck and Bruegel make life bearable on days when beauty is no longer enough.
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