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THE MODERN WONDERS of infrared macrophotography, infrared reflectography, and X-radiography have offered new insights into the works of 16th-century Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1525–1569, renowned member of a large and important southern Netherlands family of artists. Image of The Painter and the Buyer, c. 1565, possibly a Bruegel self-portrait.

“Peeling Back the Paint to Discover Bruegel’s Secrets,” by Nina Siegal, The New York Times, November 23, 2018, gives details of this 21st-century analysis of the “Peasant Bruegel,” as Bruegel the Elder came to be known in distinguishing him from other painters in the family. Unlike many other artists in the Dutch Golden Age, Bruegel the Elder painted no portraits, instead concentrating on everyday scenes.

The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, 1559, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This and the following images from The New York Times, November 23, 2018.

Nina Siegal writes, “He shows us a comic, violent, and sometimes ugly universe of common folk at the time that the Spanish Inquisition was sweeping Europe in the 16th century.” Even today, art historians debate whether Bruegel was taking risks with his satiric allegories of the era. Siegal asks, “Was he afraid of retribution because his drawings were too subversive?”

She observes, “New imaging technology created by a project known as ‘Inside Bruegel,’ offers some insight into these questions by allowing us to pull apart the painting’s layers.” This technology is part of “Bruegel,” a major exhibit at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, running through January 13, 2019.

“Bruegel” at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum celebrates the 450th anniversary of the artist’s death. It brings together 87 of his works, nearly two-thirds of his artistic output.

Siegal writes about Bruegel’s technique: “Like other 16th-century masters, he constructed his paintings painstakingly on wood panels, layer by layer. He started with a light-colored foundational surface, known as the ground, made of chalk and animal glue, on which he would sketch out his composition. Later, he would paint using oils.”

And, sometimes, he—or even someone else years later—would paint over details.

From a Cross to Fishes. For example, in the lower middle of The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, there’s a carnival-goer holding a roasted pig on a spit who confronts a penitent offering traditional Lenten fare, a pair of fish.

In a detail above, carnival’s roasted pig contrasts with Lent’s pair of fish, symbolic of Christ. Below, examined under infrared reflectography, an earlier version of the painting shows only a simple cross, not the fish.

Siegal quotes art historian Ron Spronk: “You can actually see the creative process. You can follow the artist in how he makes decisions.”

An Elusive Corpse. At the central right of The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, a woman drags a wagon containing a basket. But X-radiophotography reveals a more gruesome earlier version.

Above, the wagon is sans corpse. Below, in the X-radiographic image, a corpse is seen.

It’s not clear whether the elusive corpse was Bruegel’s doing or a later alteration reflecting cultural or political sensitivities of the time.

An Interactive Approach. The website Inside offers us the opportunity to play art historian/technologist. Thirteen of his works are shown, including The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, 1559; The Tower of Babel, 1563; Peasant Wedding, 1567; and ten others. Each can be studied in four different views, macrophotography (i.e., the standard view), infrared macrophotography, infrared reflectography, and X-radiography.

Here’s an exercise: Somewhere in The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, there’s a shroud next to a bundled child. Using X-radiography at Inside, you can reveal the shroud’s contents. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. jlalbrecht64
    December 4, 2018

    I’ll have to go check this out over Christmas. Breughel is very popular in Austria. I knew nothing about him when I arrived here (and little more now). I only remember him because he was shown to me as the “guy who painted someone with three legs.”

    “The Peasant Wedding.”
    Check out the front guy (red shirt) carrying the tray of food.

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