December 6, 2023
Peeling Abet the Paint to See Bruegel’s Secrets
New technology allows researchers to look beneath the layers of the Dutch master’s works, revealing some macabre details.Image“The Battle Between Carnival and Lent,” painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1559. Using infrared and X-ray technology, researchers uncovered changes that have been made to the work over the centuries.CreditCreditKunsthistorisches MuseumAMSTERDAM — What would happen if…

New expertise permits researchers to witness beneath the layers of the Dutch grasp’s works, revealing some macabre little print.

“The Fight Between Carnival and Lent,” painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1559. The usage of infrared and X-ray expertise, researchers uncovered modifications which gain been made to the work over the centuries.Credit rankingCredit rankingKunsthistorisches Museum

AMSTERDAM — What would occur even as you peeled encourage the layers of a masterpiece by one among work historical previous’s supreme painters?

Ineffective bodies might maybe moreover seem.

Utilize, as an illustration, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s immense-scale pageant scene, “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent,” which he painted in 1559. If we witness at his first drafts of the characterize, the usage of X-ray pictures, we are able to peep a corpse inner a cart that an used lady is dragging in the encourage of her. Then we peep one other ineffective body on the ground, its face turned to the viewer; he’s lying ominously shut to a sick little one.


A lady drags a cart in a detail of “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent,” 1559.Credit rankingKunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

An X-ray detail of “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent,” showing a corpse in the lady’s cart.Credit rankingKunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Nonetheless when we witness at the final version of the characterize — the one we peep with our uncover eyes — these macabre ingredients aren’t there anymore. The corpse in the cart has been blotted out with brown paint; the body on the ground is shrouded in a white fabric. When and the contrivance in which did these ineffective of us proceed?

New imaging expertise, created by a project identified as “Interior Bruegel” offers some insight into these questions, by allowing us to drag the characterize’s layers aside. The project used to be developed alongside with the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, for “Bruegel” a as soon as-in-a-lifetime exhibition, featuring 87 of the painter’s works, and which runs by contrivance of Jan. 13, 2019.

“It’s a expansive advancement even as you would possess to witness at Bruegel,” mentioned Ron Spronk, a professor of work historical previous at Queen’s University in Canada, and one among Four curators of the exhibition. “You might perchance perchance in level of fact peep the creative direction of. You might perchance perchance word the artist in how he makes decisions.”

The exhibition in Vienna, which celebrates the 450th anniversary of Bruegel’s demise, brings together 87 artworks, or almost two-thirds of all of his works: 28 normal work, 26 drawings and 33 prints. Credit rankingKunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

A main painter of the Northern Renaissance, identified for works cherish “The Tower of Babel,” “The Peasant Wedding,” and “The Triumph of Death,” Bruegel created meticulously detailed, chaotic worlds. They parodied non secular issues, mocked piousness, presented demise and destruction in surprisingly life like detail and elevated peasants to central roles.

He showed us a comic, violent, and usually terrifying universe of neatly-liked folks at a time that the Spanish Inquisition used to be sweeping Europe in the sixteenth century.

On his demise bed, Bruegel told his wife to burn his drawings, for difficulty “that they gain been too caustic or derisory, both attributable to he used to be sorry” or attributable to she might maybe moreover bag in anguish with the authorities, consistent with a 1604 biography by Karel van Mander. Became as soon as he fearful of retribution attributable to his drawings gain been too subversive?

“One in every of the issues that work historians debate barely severely is to what level Bruegel used to be criticizing the authorities of that day,” Mr. Spronk mentioned. “These sorts of questions are restful debated at the moment time.”


Detail of “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent,” which reveals two fish on a baker’s peel.Credit rankingKunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

A detail of “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” made with infrared rays reveals that in an earlier version of the characterize, there used to be a contaminated on the peel.Credit rankingKunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Bruegel himself made modifications to his uncover compositions that will moreover give us clues about his level of view. Relish assorted sixteenth-century masters, he constructed his work painstakingly on wood panels, layer by layer. He started with a delicate-colored foundational surface, identified as the ground, made of chalk and animal glue, on which he would sketch out his composition. Later, he would paint the usage of oils.

Within the center foreground of the characterize, “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” we peep festivalgoers celebrating on one side and pious observers of lent on the assorted. They’re engaged in a more or less jousting match. A beefy man maintaining a pig on a stick faces off with an austere penitent, maintaining a baker’s peel on which there are two fish.

If we witness at a image of this characterize made with infrared rays, despite the real fact that, we peep that as a replacement of the two fish, Bruegel painted a contaminated — a image of the church. He later removed the contaminated and added the fish, a feeble meals served all the contrivance in which by contrivance of the pageant of Lent. Nonetheless fish are also symbols of Christ, so it might maybe maybe moreover very best be a more subtle reference to the church.

“We don’t know,” which he intended, Mr. Spronk mentioned. “This might maybe perchance perchance moreover be interpreted in many assorted systems.”

As to the characterize’s corpses, Sabine Pénot, a curator of Netherlandish and Dutch work at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and one other of the exhibition’s curators, mentioned that Bruegel didn’t form these modifications himself; any individual else blotted out the ineffective body in the cart, and lined up the corpse on the ground, despite the real fact that no-one knows who did it or when, precisely. Ms. Pénot mentioned it might maybe maybe moreover gain been in the seventeenth or 18th centuries.


A detail of “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent,” 1559.Credit rankingKunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

An X-ray detail of “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” displays skeletal stays beneath the white shroud.Credit rankingKunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

The usage of the “Interior Bruegel” instruments, we are able to peep what he supposed, and the contrivance in which others reacted, Ms. Pénot mentioned. “You peep Bruegel’s creative forces and in some cases you peep what took space after him. You peep the paint layer where you gather these ineffective or unwell bodies and then you definately stumble upon the intervention of any individual later on to diminish these darkish or ravishing pictures.”

Ms. Pénot compares these modifications to those that gain been previously illustrious in Bruegel’s “Massacre of the Innocents,” which is at the second in the British royal assortment. (A copy, however no longer the normal is integrated in the Vienna level to, attributable to it used to be too fragile to shuttle.)

“Massacre of the Innocents,” first and main depicting the slaughter of kids, is concept of at the moment time by some critics as one among Bruegel’s most strident criticisms of the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands. Nonetheless some viewers ought to gain felt that the violence he depicted used to be very best too powerful to address. At some level in historical previous, both in the seventeenth or 18th century, Ms. Pénot mentioned, any individual changed your entire pictures of ineffective kids with pictures of farm animals — and that’s how the characterize stands at the moment time.

The usage of the uncover tool InsideBruegel.uncover, any individual can entry 12 work from the Vienna museum and employ hours zooming in on these little print. At the origin funded by the Getty Basis’s Panel Work Initiative, a decade-long effort to practice panel work restorers, this expertise has also been used to peek the work of Bruegel’s fellow Netherlandish grasp Hieronymus Bosch, as neatly as the works of van Eyck, a Fifteenth-century Flemish painter only identified for the Ghent Altarpiece, “The Adoration of the Lamb.”


A enlighten at the Kunsthistorisches Museum zooms in on little print from Bruegel’s works.Credit rankingKunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

“You might perchance perchance entry the uncover pages in actuality as a novice and as a specialist,” Ms. Pénot mentioned. “It’s a needed tool for conservation, however you might maybe maybe moreover moreover form your uncover discoveries.”

Ms. Pénot mentioned that researchers gain stumbled on that, “A majority of these work gain long gone by contrivance of a modification. Either the panels gain been lower down, or they’ve been partly overpainted or little print gain been changed, both in Bruegel’s time or in later classes.”

Mr. Spronk mentioned: “There restful is a quantity of debate as to what the that manner is, or what the layers of that manner are, in the work. The question of what Bruegel is attempting to bid isn’t any longer resolved.” He added that it used to be unclear if the painter used to be an anthropologist sooner than his time, “who wished to level to us pictures of peasants of their every day existence, falling into the water, having a bowel motion in the grass,” or whether he used to be “somewhat powerful very best attempting to form us chortle.”

“We don’t know the acknowledge,” Mr. Spronk mentioned. “We present theses pictures so as that folks can form up their very uncover minds.”

A version of this text looks in print on

, on Page



of the New York edition

with the headline:

Uncovering the Secrets of Bruegel

. Characterize Reprints | This day’s Paper | Subscribe