Encoded References in Exeter Book Bird-Riddles

In continuing my discussion of cryptic information encoded in runes in the Exeter Book Riddles, in which I argue runic literacy functions as a form of esotericism, I wish to expand the conversation by considering the variety of specialized information contained in a group of Old English riddles featured in the collection (Riddles 7-10). I will refer to these as bird-riddles, by which I mean specifically a group of potentially related riddles in the Exeter Book whose accepted solutions are birds. As this description promises, these riddles feature bird imagery and their riddle-speaker is generally a specific bird of some kind. Patrick Murphy has suggested that bird-riddle imagery may act also as a mode of obfuscation in the Exeter Book Riddles, and he contends that in Riddle 57, letters (litterae), or rune-staves (runstafas or bocstafas), are probably the best solution to this verbal puzzle, which Murphy argues likens flocking black birds to letters forming words.

George Hodan, “Flock Of Birds” (2007-2019).

The Exeter Book bird-riddles display a range of references, as they encode learned and folkloric knowledge. Most of the bird-riddles contain specific references to an encyclopedic source of medieval knowledge, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, which endeavors to define, interpret and explicate the Latin words contained therein. While Isidore reports his share of false etymologies, his text is widely considered authoritative with regard to the study of Latin terminology during the Middle Ages. Mercedes Salvador-Bello has demonstrated the profound extent to which information and even organization principles outlined in Isidore’s Etymologiae serve as models for zoological Exeter Book Riddles, though not all of the clues in the Old English riddles are shared by this Latin source (in fact, many times the information contained diverges significantly).

Diagrams of the path of the Sun and the phases of the moon; from Isidore of Seville, “Etymologies” (11th century), British Library, Royal MS 6 C I, f.30r

Most of the Exeter Book bird-riddles rely on some form of esotericism and references to specific information. I now will briefly consider two of bird-riddles, which encode specialized knowledge and may be associated with Isidore’s Etymologiae in addition to other classical sources, especially Pliny’s Historia naturalis. Furthermore, numerous riddle collections from early medieval England likewise feature bird-riddles, such as Anglo-Latin enigmata composed by authors such as Aldhelm (Enigmata 14, 22, 26, 31, 35, 42, 47, 57, 63-64) and Eusebius (Enigmata 38, 56-60),  a Latin literary tradition interwoven with its vernacular counterpart as Dieter Bitterli and other scholars have shown. Old English bird-riddles that seem to allude to Isidore’s Etymologiae XII, include Riddle 7 (solved swon “swan”), Riddle 8 (solve nihtegale “nightingale”), Riddle 9 (solved geac “cuckoo”) and Riddle 24 (solved higora “magpie”). Today’s discussion will center on Riddles 7-10 from the Exeter Book collection.

Exeter Book Riddle 7, Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051 f.103r. Image reproduced with permission of the University of Exeter Digital Humanities and the Dean & Chapter, Exeter Cathedral.
Riddle 7
Hrægl min swigað,      þonne ic hrusan trede, 
oþþe þa wic buge,      oþþe wado drefe. 
Hwilum mec ahebbað      ofer hæleþa byht 
hyrste mine,      ond þeos hea lyft, 
ond mec þonne wide      wolcna strengu 
ofer folc byreð.      Frætwe mine 
swogað hlude      ond swinsiað, 
torhte singað,      þonne ic getenge ne beom 
flode ond foldan,      ferende gæst.
“My dress is mute, when I tread the ground, or occupy my abode or stir the water. Sometimes they heave me over the city of heroes, my garments and this high wind and then the strength of the skies bears me far and wide over the people. My adornments then resound loudly, and ring, and sing loudly, when I am not hanging on sea or land, a traveling spirit.”
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

The muted attire of the swan (swon) does not feature in the Etymologiae, and its feathers do not sing when in flight . The swan (cygnus) does produce cantus dulcissimos “the sweetest songs” according to Isidore’s Etymologiae XII.vii.1, and the etymological relationship between the swan and its song is repeatedly stressed, namely how cycnus autem a canendo est appellatus, eo quod carminis dulcedinem modulatis vocibus fundit “moreover, the swan is named for singing because it unleashes the sweetness of song with modulated voice” (Etymologiae XII.vii.18). However, this reference and emphasis on the creature’s beautiful vocalization probably does not explain the full extent of learned references in this riddle. The image of the swan’s melodious feathers is found also in the Old English Phoenix (131-39), and both J. D. A. Ogilvy and Craig Williamson consider these possible references to an epistle that describes the sweet and harmonious song of the swan’s wings by Gregorius Naziansenus to Celeusius, a Latin translation of which they believe may have circulated in early medieval England.

As with other bird-riddles, Exeter Book Riddle 7 refers to the bird’s hyrst “garment” (4). The word hyrst seems to be a repeated clue encoded in numerous bird-riddles, though the term itself operates somewhat more ambiguously, rather than making direct mention of feathers or otherwise explicit references to their riddle-subjects’ physicality.

Like Riddle 7, the speaker of Exeter Book Riddle 8 is clearly also some kind of songbird. Emphasis on this aspect exceeds even its treatment in the previous riddle.

Exeter Book Riddle 8, Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051, f.103r. Image reproduced with permission of the University of Exeter Digital Humanities and the Dean & Chapter, Exeter Cathedral.
Riddle 8
Ic þurh muþ sprece       mongum reordum,
wrencum singe,       wrixle geneahhe
heafodwoþe,     hlude cirme,
healde mine wisan,       hleoþre ne miþe,
eald æfensceop,       eorlum bringe
blisse in burgum,       þonne ic bugendre
stefne styrme;       stille on wicum
sittað nigende.       Saga hwæt ic hatte,
þe swa scirenige       sceawendwisan
hlude onhyrge,    hæleþum bodige
wilcumena fela       woþe minre.
“Through my mouth, I speak with many voices, I sing in variations. Frequently, I mix kindred voices. I cry out aloud, I keep my counsel. I do not conceal my voice. The old evening-poet brings bliss to men in cities, when I storm the citizens with my voice. They sit still, listening in their homes. Say what I am called, who so clearly proclaims loudly a feasting song, announces to heroes, many welcome things with my voice.”
Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

As with the swan, Isidore includes the nightingale in his catalogue of birds, stating that luscinia avis inde nomen sumpsit, quia cantu suo significare solet diei surgentis exortum “the nightingale is a bird that took its name because it is accustomed to mark the onset of the coming day by its song” Etymologiae XII.vii.37. This stress on the nightingale’s singing in the wee hours of the morning—in the dark calling the day—is alluded to in the characterization of the nightingale (nihtegale) as æfensceop “evening poet” (5), though surely calling the bird uhtsceop “daybreak-poet” would have been closer to Isidore’s suggestion that the nightingale (luscinia) summons the lux “light” specifically with its call, Latin terms the medieval lexicographer contends may be etymologically related.

Ambrose’s “Hexameron” (12th century), located in British Library, Royal MS 6 A.i, f1.r

On the other hand, considering niht “night” is referenced in the Old English word for this bird (nihtegale), emphasis on æfen “evening” would serve as a better vernacular clue. Salvador-Bello points out that the many voices of the nightingale (luscinia) may suggest knowledge of a passage from Pliny’s Historia naturalis (X.xliii.82-85), while Williamson posits this information may also come from Ambrose’ Hexameron (V.xxiv.85), as both texts emphasize the varied tones featured in the nightingale’s song in their discussion of this melodious songbird.

Of course, more obvious and likely is the reference in Aldhelm’s Enigma  22, solved acalantida (another Latin word for nightingale) reference directly after luscinia by Isidore (Etymologiae XII.vii.37). Aldhelm’s riddle explains how vox mea diversis variatur pulcra figuris,/ raucisonis numquam modulabor carmina rostris “my beautiful voice is varied by diverse styles, never will I sing songs with raucous beak” (1-2), which accounts for emphasis on how ic þurh muþ sprece mongum reordum,/ wrencum singe “through my mouth, I speak with many voices, I sing in variations” (1-2) in Exeter Book Riddle 8. Aldhelm’s Enigma 22 also states that non sum spreta canendo/ sic non cesso canens fato terrente futuro “I am not to be spurned for my singing, thus I do not stop singing even if doomed to a terrifying fate” (3-4), which corresponds to the description of reverence for the riddle-speaker’s song in the Old English bird-riddle.

Aldhelm’s “Enigma 22” (De acalantida), located in British Library, Royal MS C XXIII, f86v.

Moreover, Riddle 8 describes the nightingale (nihtegale) as æfensceop “an evening poet” (5), employing stock imagery in order to misdirect the solver, and allowing the riddle to expound on the nocturnal songs of the nightingale under the guise of storytelling and heroic tales. That the æfensceop “evening poet” is said to scirenige sceawendwisan/ hlude onhyrge, hæleþum bodige “clearly proclaim a feasting song, declare loudly, announce to heroes” (9-10) further extends the equivocation between bird and poet. Riddle 8 thereby uses formulaic language and heroic diction to obfuscate the riddle’s solution, again referencing hæleþa (10) as previously in Riddle 7 (3). Moreover, the notion that people revere the nightingale’s song and sit in attention—as warriors listening intently to heroic poetry—is corroborated by Alcuin’s elegy devoted to this songbird, titled De luscinia.

Although the term hyrst “garment” from Riddle 7 does not appear in Exeter Book Riddle 9, the theme of clothing and adornments nevertheless pervades this riddle.

Exeter Book Riddle 9, Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051, f.103r. Image reproduced with permission of the University of Exeter Digital Humanities and the Dean & Chapter, Exeter Cathedral.
Riddle 9
Mec on þissum dagum      deadne ofgeafun 
fæder ond modor;      ne wæs me feorh þa gen, 
ealdor in innan.      þa mec an ongon, 
welhold mege,      wedum þeccan, 
heold ond freoþode,      hleosceorpe wrah 
swa arlice      swa hire agen bearn, 
oþþæt ic under sceate,      swa min gesceapu wæron, 
ungesibbum wearð      eacen gæste. 
Mec seo friþe mæg      fedde siþþan, 
oþþæt ic aweox,      widdor meahte 
siþas asettan.      Heo hæfde swæsra þy læs 
suna ond dohtra,      þy heo swa dyde. 
“In these days, father and mother gave me up for dead. There was no life yet in me, no spirit within. Then one well-meaning kinsman began to wake me in my garment, held and sheltered me, wrapped me in protective-gear so tenderly as her own child, until I, under her cover, became enlarged in spirit among my non-siblings as was my destiny. Afterward, that protective kinswoman fed me until I grew up, and could make wider journeys. She had fewer of her own sons and daughters because she did so.”
Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

In this riddle, the cuckoo (geac) is described as if it were a shapeshifter, and its famously treacherous behavior is stressed, as much of the paradox is centered on questions of kinship and the evolution of the bird’s experience from its abandonment—to fostering—and finally betrayal of its host family, and most of these details are outlined by Pliny the Elder.

Pliny’s “Historia Naturalis” (Liber X) from 12th century manuscript, British Library, Arundel MS 98, f85v.
Pliny, Naturalis Historia X.xi-26-27
26. inter quae parit in alienis nidis, maxime palumbium, maiore ex parte singula ova, quod nulla alia avis, raro bina. causa pullos subiciendi putatur quod sciat se invisam cunctis avibus; nam minutae quoque infestant. ita non fore tutam generi suo stirpem opinatur, ni fefellerit; quare nullum facit nidum, alioqui trepidum animal. 27. educat ergo subditum adulterato feta nido. ille, avidus ex natura, praeripit cibos reliquis pullis, itaque pinguescit et nitidus in se nutricem convertit. illa gaudet eius specie miraturque sese ipsam, quod talem pepererit; suos comparatione eius damnat ut alienos absumique etiam se inspectante patitur, donec corripiat ipsam quoque, iam volandi potens. nulla tunc avium suavitate carnis comparatur illi.
“It always lays its eggs in the nest of another bird, and that of the ring-dove more especially, mostly a single egg, a thing that is the case with no other bird; sometimes however, but very rarely, it is known to lay two. It is supposed, that the reason for its thus substituting its young ones, is the fact that it is aware how greatly it is hated by all the other birds; for even the very smallest of them will attack it. Hence it is, that it thinks its own race will stand no chance of being perpetuated unless it contrives to deceive them, and for this reason builds no nest of its own: and besides this, it is a very timid animal. In the meantime, the female bird, sitting on her nest, is rearing a supposititious and spurious progeny; while the young cuckoo, which is naturally craving and greedy, snatches away all the food from the other young ones, and by so doing grows plump and sleek, and quite gains the affections of his foster-mother; who takes a great pleasure in his fine appearance, and is quite surprised that she has become the mother of so handsome an offspring. In comparison with him, she discards her own young as so many strangers, until at last, when the young cuckoo is now able to take the wing, he finishes by devouring her. For sweetness of the flesh, there is not a bird in existence to be compared to the cuckoo at this season” (translation by John Bostock).

The parasitic nature of the cuckoo is referenced in Isidore’s Etymologiae, but the nature of their freeloading is quite different, as instead the cuckoo (cuculus) is accused of having milvorum scapulis suscepti propter breves et parvos volatus “taken up with the wings of kites because of its [the cuckoo’s] brief and short flight” (XII.vii.67). Isidore also notes that avium nomina multa a sono vocis constat esse conposita “many names of birds appear to be construed from the sound of their voice” (XII.vii.9), and includes the cuckoo (cuculus) in his list along with the swan (cyngus), but this detail is not mentioned in the Old English riddle.

Now for Riddle 10, the final and only bird-riddle in this sequence, whose riddle-subject appears nowhere in Isidore’s Etymologiae.

Exeter Book Riddle 10, Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051, f.103v. Image reproduced with permission of the University of Exeter Digital Humanities and the Dean & Chapter, Exeter Cathedral.
Riddle 10
Neb wæs min on nearwe , ond ic neoþan wætre,
flode underflowen,     firgenstreamum
swiþe besuncen,    ond on sunde awox
ufan yþum þeaht,     anum getenge
liþendum wuda     lice mine .
Hæfde feorh cwico,     þa ic of fæðmum cwom
brimes ond beames     on blacum hrægle.
Sume wæron hwite     hyrste mine,
þa mec lifgende     lyft upp ahof,
wind of wæge,    siþþan wide bær
ofer seolhbaþo.     Saga hwæt ic hatte.
“My beak was in narrowness, and I was beneath the water, I was subsumed by the ocean, I was sunk deep in the briny current. I awoke in my swimming, covered over by waves, near those travelers of wood, with my body. I had a living spirit, when I came from the bosom of sea and tree in black garments. Some of my decorations were white, when the breeze heaved me up, living, the wind from the wave, after that it bore me widely across the seal-bath. Say what I am called.”
Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)

As mentioned, Riddle 10 is unique because—unlike the other subjects of Exeter Book bird-riddles—the barnacle goose (bernaca) is conspicuously absent from the catalogue of birds in Isidore’s Etymologiae. The riddle is rather generic in its description of the bird being on blacum hrægle “in black garments” (7), and wearing white hyrste “decorations” (8). Moreover, the description of how lyft upp ahof “the breeze heaves me up” (9) echoes other bird-riddles. However, the solution can be deduced if one is familiar with Insular folklore surrounding the barnacle goose (bernaca), first attested in this riddle but corroborated by later sources such as Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hiberniae (c.1188). This legend suggests that the barnacle goose is born by spontaneous generation on trees that grow over water. And, there is an added level of equivocation resulting from a homographic pun on hyrst (8), which could refer either to the masculine noun hyrst “copse, wood” or more likely to the feminine noun hyrst, meaning “ornament, decoration, trapping” and this pun connects the bird’s physical characteristics with its unnatural birth from water and wood. If the solver is familiar with this insular barnacle goose legend, the solution is revealed, but if not it is obscured.

Owl and other birds from medieval bestiary, British Library, Harley MS 4751, f47r.

A careful source study of this sequence of Exeter Book bird-riddles (Riddles 7-10) demonstrates how although Isidore’s Etymologiae does discuss three of the four bird-riddles in the group, in many cases the specifics of the Old English riddles reference information in sources a bit more ancient and esoteric, and other sources from classical Latin (such as Pliny’s Historia naturalis) to more contemporary Old English (such as the Exeter Book Phoenix) and Anglo-Latin (such as Aldhelm’s Enigma 22) offer arcane details displayed in the riddles more precisely. This suggests that while Salvador-Bello may have identified an Isidorean orientation, intellectual framework and organizing principle behind the Exeter Book Riddles, Old English riddlers and enigmatists were reaching beyond the Etymologiae and further afield and into more obscure territory, especially folklore and esotericism, when creating their verbal puzzles in early medieval England.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Editions and Translations:

Aldhelm. Aldhelmi Opera (MGH), edited by Rudolf Ehwald, 211-326. Berolini and Weidmann, 1961.

—. Enigmata. In Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis (CCSL 133), edited by Maria De Marco, 359-540. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1968.

—. Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. Translated by Michael Lapidge and James L. Rosier. Dover, NH: D. S. Brewer, 1985.

Eusebius. Enigmata. In Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis (CCSL 133), edited by Maria De Marco, 209-71. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1968.

Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. Edited by Bernard J. Muir. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1994.

The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Edited by Craig Williamson. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

Isidore of Seville. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Translated by Stephen A. Barney. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Pliny, The Elder. Natural History, with an English Translation. Edited and translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1943.

—. The Natural History. Edited and translated by John Bostock and H.T. Riley. London, UK: Taylor & Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, 1855.

Tatwine and Eusebius. “The Riddles of Tatwine and Eusebius.” Edited and translated by Mary J. M. Williams. Dissertation: University of Michigan, 1974.


Works Cited and Further Reading:

Bayless, Martha. “Alcuin’s Disputatio Pippini and the Early Medieval Riddle Tradition.” In Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, edited by Guy Halsall, 157-78. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Dailey, Patricia. “Riddles, Wonder and Responsiveness in Anglo-Saxon England.” In Early Medieval English Literature, edited by Clare A. Lees, 451-72. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Fahey, Richard. “Reading Runes in the Exeter Book Riddles.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame, Medieval Institute. February 17, 2018.

Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Ogilvy, Jack D. A. Books Known to the English, 597-1066. Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1967.

Orchard, Andy. “Enigma Variations: The Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Tradition.” In Latin Learning and Old English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge, edited by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard, 284-304. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown, WV. West Virginia University Press, 2015.

Williamson, Craig. A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

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.

Syncretism in the Hêliand

Bust of Charlemagne (14th century), Aachen Cathedral Treasury

The Hêliand represents a towering yet puzzling work of early continental Germanic literature whose deliberate fusion of Christian ideas with the language of warrior elites creates a rich and intense patchwork for audiences. Composed in the first half of the ninth century in the Carolingian Empire at a time when the emperors sought to impose Christianity on their newly conquered Saxon subjects, the text consists of a lengthy verse Gospel paraphrase completed in the so-called Old Saxon dialect—a predecessor of Middle and High varieties of Low German spoken throughout the northern regions of contemporary Germany. The religious subject of the poem is translated into the language of a Germanic warrior culture in order to reach a wide audience of lay—especially male—elites. This, in turn, transforms the narrative of Jesus’ life into a uniquely Christian-Germanic epic propped up by the language of fidelity and war.

The statue of Charlemagne erected in Aachen’s Market Place, 1620

One of the moments in the Hêliand where the juxtaposition of Christian ideas and prophecy with a Germanic vocabulary of warrior elites comes in the work’s fifty-sixth fitt (“song”), the Last Supper narrative. Linked is an excerpt and translation from this turning point in the text (Hêliand 56, lines 4665-4701), revolving around Simon Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ forecasting of the former’s impending betrayal (which I have titled “Peter’s Promise”). Throughout his speeches, Jesus relies upon the vocabulary of fidelity and lordship, while Peter’s promise to sacrifice himself “an uuapno spil”—literally “in the play of weapons”—reads as a transparent euphemism for the scourges of battle.

Jake Coen
PhD Candidate in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame