Christine Ebner and the Engelthal Sister-Book: Some English Translations

Scores of women mystics. The dead returning to speak to the living. Even a mystical pregnancy. Who wouldn’t want to read this book?

Fortunately for us, it is more properly these books. There are nine “Sister-books,” or Schwesternbücher, from fourteenth-century German convents (plus several from fifteenth-century Netherlands). All are filled with short glimpses at the piety of different sisters.

Many scholars today argue that these collective biographies cannot tell us anything about the individual nuns. Rather, using rhetorical and devotional elements of their time, the books build a picture of how the community envisions itself. There is perhaps no better individual signal of this purpose than the title of Christine Ebner’s Schwesternbücher for the sisters of Engelthal: Buchlein von der genaden uberlast, which might be translated “Little Book on the Excess of Grace.” The books reveal the manifestation of God’s grace in each convent in a way that other people will understand.

Given that women wrote the Schwesternbücher about other women, it is surprisingly difficult to find English-language discussion of them, much less published translations.

So here I present three entries from Christine Ebner’s Buchlein von der genaden uberlast (Little Book on the Excess of Grace), which tells of sisters from the Dominican convent at Engelthal, near Nuremberg.

One sister was named Reichgard [Richardis] and was our patron’s sister and came to our community. She had been a black nun [Benedictine] and knew our craft. As she now had come into our cloister, she took up the practice with great industriousness and went unceasingly to choir for thirty years, that she never missed a single day. And she was also without meat these thirty years and came only rarely to bathe and fasted unceasingly, and was awake every night after Matins, and said no more than three Salve reginas with great devotion. The first Salve regina, she said that for the cloister and all good people; the second Salve regina for all sinners; the third Salve regina for the souls in purgatory. She was a righteous person for all her life, and Our Lord never did her any special grace until the time that her life would take an end. Then she lay after Matins in front of the alter in choir on her knees for a long time. There came Our Lady and led her son Jesus Christ by the hand, and he was like a child around ten years old and said to her, “Stand up, beloved Reichgard.” And when she got herself up, then our Lord gripped her by her chin and said, “The time has come, prepare yourself: your brother and your sister await you with great desire. You are invited to the eternal company; there I will give you all of the wages you have earned from me.” In the same place she arrived at death and died with a holy death. Not many days after she came back here and said: she had traveled to heaven not without respite; her purgatory had been in a green meadow.

One sister was named Mechthild von Neidstein, and came here from the court of the count of Herzberg, and was an unceasing servant of God and cried in her prayers every day for God to give her a good end. This he allowed her and gave her indeed a devout death. Then she came back after her death and said: God had given her an unmeasurable reward because she had been loyal to the convent, and especially that she had suffered in the office of prioress with loyalty.

[Mechthild] had a niece, who was named Sophie von Neidstein, who died before her, and was around twenty-four years old, and was an undefeated person. When she lay on her deathbed, then she was enraptured. When she again came to herself, then she said, “I was in the other world and have seen and heard—should I live five hundred years more, I could never fully say what I know. As I am now at peace, so I want to say something about it.” Then she lifted up a song, which no one understood other than the last word, that she said “Mary,” and then said: “I was made aware, that I am one of the saved people; this I did not know before.” After that, she died one more day after that. When she did her last action, then she lifted up the Salve Regina: “Greeted you are, queen,” and sang it with a sweet voice. As she was then dead, so she came back to a valued sister. She said to her: as she had prayed the Salve regina, then our lady Mary entered in a purple robe, and St. Agnes and many virgins entered with her. Then our lady wrapped the robe around her; thus everything flew away. This grace she had earned with a Psalter that she had read every day standing. Thus she had fallen under silence for three hours, when she was dressed for death, and died on the day of Our Lady.

All translations based on: Christina Ebner, Der Nonne von Engelthal Büchlein von der Genaden Überlast, ed. Karl Gustav Theodor Schröder (Tübingen: Litterarischer Verein in Stuttgart, 1871), 25-26.

Cait Stevenson, PhD
University of Notre Dame

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, A (Medievalist’s) Reader Response

I had not read far into Adam Gidwitz’s 2016 novel The Inquisitor’s Tale before wondering, “How does this guy know so much about the Middle Ages?” Upon flipping to the back of the book, I learned that Adam Gidwitz is married to a medieval historian. As a result, he had access to quality resources on the period, in the form of experts in the field and source materials, that made all the difference.

Clearly, he’s read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as the chapter titles mimic those of the canonical text. For instance, Gidwitz presents readers with “The Nun’s Tale” and “The Librarian’s Tale,” echoing Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” or “Clerk’s Tale.” Identifying the storytellers in those titles by their occupation, rather than their given name, imbues the story with more than a hint of the personification-style caricatures Chaucer provides of the medieval estates, referring to society’s organization by profession according to a religious and secular ranking system.[1] However, Gidwitz’s narrators diverge from the model text by telling their tales in multiple parts, whereas Chaucer’s, despite the Prologue’s stated ambitions for multiple tales per speaker, take one turn each. Nevertheless, this book makes for a good comparison text that could work in a class on the Canterbury Tales, or on literature influenced by it.

Aside from chapter and character titles, the book’s structure resembles that of the Canterbury Tales in one other significant way: the frame narrative. Chaucer presents readers with a collection of tales united into a single text by a larger narrative in which a group of pilgrims agree to the terms of a storytelling contest. However, instead of a frame narrative that brings together a series of disparate, standalone stories, unified only by that framing, Gidwitz tells one story through the perspectives of many storytellers, each of whom witnesses a different “chapter” of the narrative.[2] Like Chaucer’s narrators, Gidwitz’s speak in a tone and vocabulary suitable to their professional identities. The lead voice of the frame narrative comes from a soon-to-be reformed Inquisitor instead of a fictionalized authorial voice like the one Chaucer creates for himself. According to this Inquisitor, the nun speaks in an accent “as proper as any I’ve ever heard” (11). The Joungler with the most pronounced verbal idiosyncrasies clearly identifies his status through his speech: “I’m a jongleur. I’ll set me up in a market on market day, sing songs, juggle a little, whatever it takes to make a penny or two for poor boy like meself” (104). The wide strata of medieval classes and occupations represented at Gidwitz’ gathering of tale tellers also imitate Chaucer’s use of fictional narrators representing many levels of the medieval estates hierarchy. But, while Chaucer’s text remains incomplete (he died before finishing what would have been a monstrously large masterpiece), Gidwitz’s characters take multiple turns at storytelling in a fully realized novel.[3]

It makes sense for anyone with a background in English to have encountered Chaucer because of his consistent presence in the average undergraduate curriculum. However, the loose structural influence of the CanterburyTales on The Inquisitor’s Tales does not account for the depth of knowledge the book contains about a wide, wide range of all the most popular genres circulating in the Middle Ages (despite Chaucer’s use of pretty much all of them), nor does it account for his understanding of France where the story takes place, rather than England, the site of the Canterbury pilgrimage. Indeed, Gidwitz draws upon vitae(saints’ lives), miracle stories, chronicles, theological treatises, sermons, and more. The story even becomes a kind of pilgrimage for the protagonists with a holy destination, Mont-Saint-Michel, albeit the journey looks rather unconventional in comparison with many original source texts on pilgrimage, especially considering their ages and mixed religious affiliations.[4] Gidwitz likewise inserts his characters into actual medieval events (i.e.–the burning of Jewish books, or the lost Holy Nail) in historically important places (i.e.–Saint-Denis) among real people, such as Louix IX and his mother, Blanche of Castile.[5] These historical influences, as much as is possible in a fictional text, make the text feel authentic. The palpable presence of the Middle Ages derives from the breadth of primary and secondary sources from which Gidwitz draws, and it leaves the reader (or at least this medievalist) with a sense of authenticity absent in much of the modern medievalism I’ve encountered of late.[6] (Dare I mention Game of Thrones here?)

And then, to delight and assault the reader’s senses, there’s the matter of stinky cheese and a flatulent dragon. Dragons, of course, feature regularly in medieval texts, and saints regularly find themselves in battles with them. Gidwitz drew inspiration here from Saint Martha’s story in a popular collection of saints’ lives called The Golden Legend (350). As a specialist in English literature, it was impossible not to discern other literary echoes, such as the epic poem Beowulf, especially with the Beowulfian meadhall feasts that occur before and after every victory over a monster, including after Beowulf’s much fiercer and deadlier dragon. Or, perhaps more immediately, the feast scenes in Arthurian romances resonate here. The feasting hall often serves as site of serious political negotiations, and Jeanne, William, and Jacob must navigate these tricky conversations even as they are confronted with Époisses cheese that “tastes like being punched in the face” (137). Given the saintliness of the novel’s three children, a hagiographical source for the episode makes better sense than Beowulf, but recognizing parallels, even unintentional ones, is one of the great joys of reading. Moreover, because this book targets a younger audience, the humor injected into the narrative by the glorious cheese and stinky dragon counterbalances the weightier issues, such as the likely death of Jacob’s parents.

As a book historian, the illustrations just might be my favorite part of the book. While the illustrator, Hatem Aly, chose a more modern drawing style, he took care to base this style on common features of medieval manuscript decoration. Historiated initials (large, decorative letters with drawings inside them), vegetal borders, authoritative figures with their right hand in the declamatio position (raised with index finger pointing upwards), and wacky creatures lurking in the margins all grace the pages as visualizations and interpretations of the story. The artist’s development of a text-image relationship with an interpretative angle amounts to a form of reader response in line with common medieval practice. Gidwitz supports the text-image relationship with a healthy respect for the bookmaking process in a novel that writes manuscripts into the story’s central conflict: the burning of Jewish books. William the oblate’s comments here are particularly striking, and a great way to introduce younger audiences to book history:

A scribe might copy out a single book for years. An illuminator would then take it and work on it for longer still. Not to mention the tanner who made the parchment, and the bookbinder who stitched the book together, and the librarian who worked to get the book for the library and keep it safe from mold and thieves and clumsy monks with ink pots and dirty hands. And some books have authors, too, like Saint Augustine or Rabbi Yehuda. When you think about it, each book is a lot of lives. Dozens and dozens of them (305).

Based on the story’s reliance on book history, I could easily envision a writing assignment that asks students to close read an image or two alongside its corresponding text. Because the book caters to younger audiences, such an assignment could work across many grade levels, or even at the undergraduate level when framed appropriately.

Most importantly, at the center of this narrative sits a friendship that stands as a corrective to the religious intolerances so familiar to medievalists accustomed to staring down at hate-filled pages on occasion (not that this experience represents all the period’s literature). Jeanne, the main protagonist and a Christian peasant, befriends two boys: Jacob, a Jew, and William, an oblate (monk-in-training) with a Saracen mother (the standard, but not the most tolerant medieval term for a Muslim). Although widespread, such intolerances were neither universal, nor evenly applied in medieval texts, but they appear even in our most canonical medieval texts, such as Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” with its severe anti-Semitism.[7] However, Gidwitz counters these earlier medieval narratives with a transformative friendship:

Just a few days ago, William and Jeanne would have begged Jacob to follow Christ, and save his soul from damnation. Now the idea of it seemed ludicrous. If God would save their souls, surely, surely, He would save Jacob’s, too. What difference was there between them, except the language in which he prayed? (262).

Such a sentiment might send some medieval theologians into a rage. But, even the more tolerant thinkers of the age tend to turn to conversion as their rationale, rather than understanding and accepting the coexistence of multiple faiths into their worldview. For example, in The Book of John Mandeville, a wildly popular text throughout nearly all of Europe, the narrator draws several parallels between the Muslim and Christian faiths, seeing Islam as similar enough to prompt greater conversion efforts and, therefore, greater tolerance. However, he does not apply such “generous” (extra emphasis on the quotations here) perspectives to the Jews, who he villainizes as friends of the Antichrist.[8] Gidwitz, in his efforts towards tolerance and understanding, veers intentionally and rightly from his source materials even while acknowledging the harsh, often dangerous, climate in which medieval Jews in Europe lived.

So, with all these accurate historical re-creations, does Gidwitz’s novel give us an exact replica of the Middle Ages? Well, no. That would require non-fiction and a time machine, a real life one. Ultimately, it’s a fiction novel for younger audiences. It contains crucial life lessons about cheese. Oh, and friendship, tolerance, and love, but all of that can be pretty well be summed up with cheese.

And one final point, why is it that the frame narrative’s characters do not realize the main speaker’s occupation? That’s easy: Nobody expects the Inquisition, Spanish or otherwise.[9]

Karrie Fuller, PhD
University of Notre Dame

Notes:

[1]To learn about different occupations’ rank in the social hierarchy, see Jill Mann’s Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

[2]Some of Chaucer’s tales circulate independently in manuscripts, especially religious ones, such as the “Tale of Melibee.”

[3]The use of a frame narrative, it should be noted, was not unique to Chaucer among medieval authors. Boccaccio’s Decameron represents the form in Italy, a country Chaucer visited multiple times where he encountered the works of Boccaccio, Dante, and other major authors on the continent.

[4]For those new to pilgrimage texts, a good place to begin might be The Pilgrimage of Egeria for an early example and William Wey for a much later example. While pilgrimage was a spiritual journey and texts most often reflect the seriousness of the experience, it could also be a form of tourism, and fictionalized versions, such as Chaucer’s, reflect this side of the journey to a greater degree. Dragons, and legends more generally, can fit into a pilgrimage narrative as The Book of Sir John Mandeville attests.

[5]Read the “Author’s Note” at the back of the book for more details.

[6]Some of Gidwitz’s sources appear in the back of the book in the “Annotated Bibliography.” It’s a good place to start for background reading.

[7]In addition to the Canterbury Tales itself, there are several commentaries on this topic right here on the Medieval Studies Research Blog. For a modern take on Chaucer’s anti-Semitism see this post on “Teaching the Canterbury Talesin the Alt-Right Era” by Natalie Weber. Find other relevant posts under the “Undergrad Wednesdays” category as well.

[8]Access an online version of Mandeville as part of the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series.

[9]If you need to read this footnote to understand the cultural reference here, please immerse yourself in the world of Monty Python immediately. It’s for your own good, really.

A Previously Unknown Early Netherlandish Genre Panel Painting—Pieter Bruegel the Elder?

Close-up of Peasants Painting
Figure 1: Panel Painting, Peasants At Day’s End (private collection).
Peasants painting in frame
Figure 2: Panel Painting, Peasants At Day’s End, frame and cradle.

A small previously unknown panel painting, Peasants At Day’s End, named for the sunset motif that forms part of its setting, is typical of 16th and 17th c. Early Netherlandish Genre Painting influenced by the pictorial language and style of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Active in the 1550s and 60s, Bruegel worked in several media, but he is acclaimed for being among the first to paint scenes of everyday life, notably landscapes and the peasant class in a secular context. The popularity of Bruegel in his own lifetime was great, but the fervor for collecting his works after his untimely death in 1569 precipitated an art market in Antwerp and the Southern Netherlands at the end of the 16th and in the first third of the 17th c. in which copies, pastiches, and even forgeries circulated; many bore the name, Bruegel, though more often as a way of honoring the master than as a deliberate deception.[1] It might be tempting to relegate Peasants At Day’s End to the efforts of an ardent follower or forger, but a signature recently found in an unusual location, together with its comparison to a landscape by Bruegel The Elder, have prompted the question of whether the painting may be by Pieter Bruegel the Elder himself. [2]

The pocketsize picture, in many ways reminiscent of a late medieval miniature, measures a scant 5.5 x 7.75 inches. It appears to be oil on oak panel and is darkened due to grime and old varnish. Gilding is visible in places beneath flaking varnish on the frame. Both the cradling of the wooden support—a popular 19th c. conservation practice—and the once-gold frame suggest the painting held value for past owners, although owing to its lack of provenance and believed lack of a signature, it was assumed to have little more than aesthetic value.

Close-up of name
Figure 3:  Detail of walker’s hat with signature visible on brim, lightened and annotated, Peasants At Day’s End.
Close-up of name
Figure 4: Detail of signature, further lightened and annotated, Peasants At Day’s End.

Examined for the first time using high-resolution photography, the painting was discovered to have a signature that is, for all practical purposes, much too small to have been of use to a 16th or 17th c. forger. In addition to creating a signature large enough to easily see, such a forger would surely have (1) placed it in an expected location and (2) borrowed a more complete form of Bruegel’s signature. The extant signature appears somewhat abbreviated, which is the case with a handful of Bruegel the Elder’s known signatures. That it is found on the hat brim of the walking figure is unusual and yet intentional to the whole artistic plan as we will see further below. Barely detectable by zooming in on the highest resolution photo (Figure 3 and Figure 4) the signature appears to read, B, followed by an unclear letter or mark, then VE (in ligature, unusually with V above E), G, and perhaps another E: “B(?)VEGE”. Bruegel is known to have signed works, BRVEGEL, sometimes with the VE in ligature, albeit side-by-side in the usual manner, but his signature is also known to vary significantly. In early drawings he signed in lower case letters, sometimes, brueghel, sometimes with a circumflex above “u”. Later he dropped the “h” and, on both drawings and paintings, began to use roman capitals. On The Temptation of St. Anthony (1556), he unusually signed, Brueggel. On Head of a Peasant Woman (1568), only “Pb” was uncovered in 2018 on the top right corner. [3] On The Drunkard Pushed Into The Pigsty (1557), a microscopic signature was found on the pigsty, BRVEG, with the VE in ligature and EL missing. [4] On Winter Landscape with Bird Trap (1565), x-radiography revealed an abbreviated signature beneath a later more complete signature; the hidden, first signature, reads only, BVG. [5] On The Fall of the Magician Hermogenes (1564), Bruegel mistakenly inverted the order of two roman numerals in the date. [6] On Peasants At Day’s End, what appears to be an unusual form of ligature with placed above E might be explained by similar absentmindedness (forgetting the V in the first instance), or by the need to conserve space by further abbreviating his signature as he did elsewhere. Bruegel often dated his works variously using either arabic or roman numerals. So far, no date has been found on Peasants At Day’s End.

Due to its very small format, Peasants At Day’s End should perhaps not be expected to offer the same scope for detail and brushwork as Bruegel’s larger works. Cleaning may uncover more distinctive features, and yet some incredible attention to detail, such as fingernails painted on the tiny hands of the figures, are already discernable. [7] We are also reminded that not all of his paintings were painted to the same standard. The Drunkard Pushed Into The Pigsty (1557, private collection), a small wooden plate attributed in 2000, was at first disputed even after a signature was found. It is now considered one of his two earliest paintings, though not as expertly painted as later masterpieces. It measures a comparable 20 cm (7.8”) in diameter. Early Netherlandish art historian and curator, Manfred Sellink, says the pigsty roundel “betrays his lack of experience as a painter,” and art historians, Christina Currie and Dominique Allart, tell us “it is likely that Bruegel produced paintings from the very beginning of his career, even if the earliest surviving works do not date from before 1557,” pointing to the likelihood that there once existed other less masterful paintings. [8] This leaves us with the possibility that there are more to be uncovered. Bruegel had early training as a miniaturist. [9] Several small-format works by him survive and others, now lost, are noted in historical inventories; some are neither described nor named. [10]

Sellink mentions Bruegel’s use and reuse of compositional types, schemes and motifs as well as his reuse of individual figures throughout his career and in different media. Also considered a small panel, Bruegel’s Landscape With The Flight Into Egypt (1563) is nearly three times the dimensions of Peasants at Day’s End, yet the repeated arrangement of the two compositions is unmistakable. Sellink used The Flight Into Egypt as a case in point to illustrate Bruegel’s repetition of compositional schemes, comparing some of its features to his pen and ink drawing, Mountain Landscape with River and Travellers (1553, The British Museum) [11], but Peasants At Day’s End offers points of comparison that are even more closely related (Figure 5).

Paintings compared
Figure 5: Peasants At Day’s End, approximately 13.5 x 19.5 cm (left, annotated); Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, 37.1 x 55.6 cm, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1525-1569, The Courtauld Gallery, 207067 (right, annotated).

The mass of darker rocks in The Flight Into Egypt can be compared to the mass of dark buildings in Peasants At Day’s End. The lines pointing us to the Virgin in The Flight Into Egypt, point instead to the sitting figure; each wear red and anchor their respective compositions. Each are also similarly framed above-left and below by smaller dark shapes. There is a line of lighter rocks (bottom left quadrant) that runs roughly parallel to the more central diagonal line, and in each painting, both the tree on the right (in each the foliage begins just above the horizon, a similarly shaped swath of horizontal blue beneath) and the darker triangle across the bottom right corner, serve to keep the eye in the picture: Bruegel’s use of the tree in repoussoir is traditional. [12] The chimney and smoke in Day’s End appears to have the same compositional function as the prominent mountain peak with the vertical cloud formation directly above it; it is surprisingly chimney-like as well, and is found in the upper left quadrant of Flight into Egypt; it is a visual extension of a darker chimney-shaped rock further below it. The warm glow on the patch of rocks (middle far left) in Flight Into Egypt can be compared to the warm glow on the upper facade of the house in Day’s End, which approaches a trapezoidal shape.  Though they are faded or obstructed by the dirty condition of the panel, what appear to be clouds in the background of Peasants at Day’s End (grayer and to the right) are separated from a bluer sky (left) by the line of the cloud formation which trails back and forth in a wide zigzag, similar to the lines of the distant landscape in Landscape With The Flight Into Egypt. The zigzag of the middle distance in each also leads the eye to the anchor figure in red. In addition to these, one of the most compelling comparisons is the walking figure. Instead of Joseph, whose turned back leads us toward a dark grotto, our walker in Day’s End leads us toward the dark house. Each is partially framed within a darker triangle, the right side of which echoes the angle of the back and helps to accentuate the leaning, active posture. It adds to the illusion of psychological and physical fatigue carried “on the back” of each tired figure in their respective narratives, and at the same time provides a visual push forward. The left side of the triangle is the line at which the front edge of the hat and knee line up. The contextual similarity of the two walking figures is extraordinary, and is characteristic of Bruegel.  An example of his use of the triangular or lean-to effect can also be seen in The Conversion of Saul (1567), where a much larger scale figure is similarly framed by a darker partial triangle formed by the rock behind and above; the line of the rock echoes the line of the back and leg and similarly helps to push the figure along visually (Figure 6 left). The same effect can be seen in Parable of the Blind (1568), where the last two figures in a line of stumbling blind men are visually pushed by the angle of the triangles above and behind them (Figure 6 right).  In their case the triangles push forward, but also backward again (the darker plane of each), adding to the illusion of motion, but also of hesitation—to the topsy-turvy, precarious balance of the two who are doomed to fall like those leading them.

Bruegel Paintings
Figure 6: Detail (left) from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Conversion of Saul (1567), www.insidebruegel.net, KHM-Museumsverband, GG3690; Detail (right) from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Parable of the Blind (1568) Naples: Mus. di Capodimonte (artwork in the public domain).

The schemes of the two compositions being compared, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, and Peasants At Day’s End are so closely related that it is difficult to imagine one being produced without direct knowledge of or access to the other, and there is no evidence that Bruegel had a large workshop or apprentices—he worked alone. [13] We know that Pieter Brueghel the Younger carefully copied some of his father’s works after his death; he did not have direct access to most of them, and likely based several of his reproductions on a store of drawings and cartoons preserved by the family along with explicit instructions for close replication. [14] In our case, the two compositional schemes are astoundingly similar, but the theme and subject matter of each is very different; if one informed the other it didn’t preclude the free creative process of an artist whose intent was not simply to copy a painting. The comparison speaks to the practice of an artist who is known to have borrowed from an arsenal of his own compositional schemes, motifs, and figure types in creation of uniquely different works—Bruegel the Elder. Because Peasants At Days End has not yet been dated, we should not assume which of the two came first.

Peasants At Day’s End engages the classical, end-of-day motif that represents the waning of a full life lived—the reason for its title. The older men grouped at the focal center of the composition in the sunset of their years are literally highlighted by the setting sun, which also casts long shadows and glows warmly on the facades of the rural architecture behind them. In this way, nature and the cycle of life become an important part of the compositional setting married to the narrative. The fact that it is day’s end is further emphasized by the plodding figure returning home. The composition is built on a series of triangular planes (echoes of the rooflines) that zigzag across the entire picture. We are drawn in by the sitting figure in red. The eye then follows his raised hand that sends us directly to the face of the middle figure, which stares straight out of the picture, fully engaging the viewer by making eye contact. From the group of three, a pathway of light leads the eye to the walking figure, to the reflection of light on his back, and to a brighter spot of light on his collar that serves as a proverbial “x marks the spot,” because it underscores where we find the signature on the more subtly lighted hat brim. How the eye ends up at this location depends on the viewer’s full investment in the picture narrative and willingness to be led by the artist. We understand that if the walking figure looks up or changes direction, the signature will disappear. We see it only in a peek-a-boo moment as the walker, with his bobbing hat, is focused on the ground ahead, and we smile when we realize the artist is having some fun with us; finding the cleverly placed signature is our reward for playing along.

The signature is so small it is fated to go undetected unless we follow the clues—follow the light, as it were—and even then, we are able to read it only with the help of magnification. The viewer is fully engaged and thoroughly entertained by the discovery. In addition to the extremely small size of the signature, its unusual location, and abbreviated form, a forger would also be less likely to employ as much creative freedom and compositional intentionality in the placement of the signature as would Pieter Bruegel the Elder himself. Scholars repeatedly speak of Bruegel’s humor and sharp wit. We know he based many of his works on proverbial sayings as well as biblical and classical mythology. A well-known classical metaphor for old age—the end of the day—is part of the setting of Peasants At Days End. How the little painting rather astoundingly mirrors the scheme of one of Bruegel’s landscapes and other points of comparison that speak to the painterly practice, but also the spirit of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, warrant further investigation. Continued research of the previously unknown genre painting is pending further imaging and technical analysis.

Heather A. Reid, PhD

 

[1] Christina Currie and Dominique Allart, The Brueg[H]el Phenomenon: Paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elderand Pieter Brueghel the Younger with Special Focus on Technique and Copying Practice, Vol. I (Brussels: Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, 2012) 29, and on artistic works by others that bear the name Breugel, 45-46; on which also see Larry Silver, “The Importance of Being Bruegel: The Posthumous Survival of the Art of Pieter Bruegel the Elder,” in Pieter Bruegel the Elder Drawings and Prints, ed. Nadine M. Orenstein (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001) 67.  According to both of these sources, Jacob Savery is the only known deliberate forger of Bruegel the Elder’s works.

[2] I am very grateful for the insight and suggestions of medieval art specialist, Dr. Maidie Hilmo, Victoria, Canada, who read early versions of this essay.

[3] Elke Oberthaler, Sabine Pénot, Manfred Sellink, and Ron Spronk, Bruegel: The Master (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018) 272, item 82.

[4] Roger van Schoute and Hélène Verougstraete, “A Painted Wooden Roundel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder,”
The Burlington Magazine 142:1164 (March 2000): 140-46, esp. 140-41, and Oberthaler, Pénot, Sellink, and Spronk, 73.

[5] Currie and Allart, 184.

[6] Currie and Allart, 74. On Bruegel the Elder’s signature, including inconsistencies, 73-79, and van Schoute and Verougstraete, 144-45.

[7] Other details are observable to varying degrees prior to the cleaning of the panel, but their discussion in the present article is prohibitive for reasons of space.  In addition to fingernail details, of note are the other figure types (comparable to types Bruegel the Elder reused), architectural features such as the paned glass, thatched roofing and chimney, what appears to be the tail end of a ribbon-like banner flying from the upper story of the house (visible only over the sky portion beyond the roofline so far), what appears to be a nearly microscopic dog and copper pan on the extreme left margin, doorway hinges and entry hardware, as well as an axe leaning near the entry, and three hoes the walking figure is carrying.

[8] Oberthaler, Pénot, Sellink, and Spronk, 73. Currie and Allart, 38.  Sellink also tells us, Bruegel “trained, and started his career, as a painter” before turning his attention to working as a draughtsman and designer of compositions to be engraved.  See his, “Leading the Eye and Staging the Composition: Some Remarks on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Compositional Techniques,” in Oberthaler, Pénot, Sellink, and Spronk, 295-313, esp. 302-303.  Sellink’s essay is only found in the electronic edition accessed by using a code provided in the print edition. Although it is not known if his father, who worked alone, initiated such a practice, we know that Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s workshop catered to a mixed clientele, including those content with less premium productions (Currie and Allart, 62).

[9] Currie and Allart, “Another figure who would have had an influence on his early training was Pieter Coecke’s wife, Mayken Verhulst, herself a well-known miniaturist” (39). Pieter Coecke van Aelst (d. 1550) was Bruegel’s master and Bruegel later married their daughter.  On his training as a miniaturist, likely by Verhulst, also see Sellink, “Leading the Eye,” 303.

[10] Dominique Allart, “Did Pieter Brueghel the Younger See his Father’s Paintings? Some Methodological and Critical Reflections,” in Brueghel Enterprises, ed. Peter van den Brink (Maastricht: Bonnefantenmuseum; Brussels: Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique; Amsterdam: Ludion Ghent, 2001) 47-57.

[11] Sellink, “Leading the Eye,” 299.

[12] Sellink, “Leading the Eye,” 301.

[13] Currie and Allart, 64.

[14] Allart, 2001, 55-56.