Bruegel’s Dead Men

On Wednesday I had a student point out something in a painting that I had never noticed before (I love it when this happens!). We were discussing Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Fall of Icarus (c. 1558, shown left), and I was mentioning how this painting’s subject matter appears to be influenced by several different literary sources. For one thing, Bruegel’s depiction of the scene follows the Icarus story described in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which mentions a fisherman, peasant at his plough, and a shepherd.1

Given that Bruegel was strongly influenced by oral tradition, it also seems likely that this painting refers to the popular proverb, “No plough stops for the dying man.” Up until Wednesday, I have always thought that Icarus was the “dying man” shown in the painting (notice Icarus’ flailing legs as he falls into the sea). However, it looks like Bruegel included two dying (or dead!) men in this scene, perhaps to really emphasize this popular proverb.

If you look closely on the left side of the painting, you’ll notice a white dot on the left side of the plowed field, slightly above the donkey’s ears. There, in the bushes, is a corpse. Check it out:

Crazy, huh? After noticing this corpse, I decided to do a little research and find out what scholars had say on this topic. Lyncle de Vries discusses how the inclusion of this corpse emphasizes a message about brevity of life.2 This interpretation makes sense, and ties into my idea that Bruegel wanted to reference the popular proverb that I mentioned earlier.

I also am interested in an idea that was discussed by Robert Baldwin. He mentions how the corpse and sword (which is placed in the foreground of the painting, on the right side of the canvas (see detail on left)) is an allusion to the Christ as the “Prince of Peace.” These two details may reference the biblical prophecy regarding the beating of “swords into plowshares.” Baldwin points out that similar Netherlandish imagery existed that contrasts the soldiers of death (perhaps referenced here by the corpse) and the plowman of life.3

Another interesting argument is proposed by Karsten Harries, a philosopher. Harries sees this scene as an allusion to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Cain, who was a “tiller of the ground,” murders his brother Abel, a shepherd. Not only could Abel’s body be depicted in the bushes, but Harries posits that the shepherd in the middleground might also represent Abel.4

Which interpretation do you like? I think that several (if not all) of these interpretations can coexist; Bruegel appears to have wanted this painting to have multiple references. Are you familiar with any other interpretations for Bruegel’s corpse in the bushes? It’s too bad the Bruegel didn’t leave any writings for historians to reference; it would be nice to know his thoughts on the matter. Unfortunately, we’re left on our own to interpret this painting, since “dead men tell no tales.”

1 Kim Woods, “Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the Northern Canon,” in The Changing Status of the Artist by Emma Barker, Nick Webb and Kim Woods, eds. (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 181-82.

2 Lyncle de Vries, “Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus: Ovid or Solomon?” Simiolus 30, no. 1/2 (2003): 17.

3 Robert Baldwin, “Peasant Imagery and Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus,” in Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, LV, 3, (1986): 101-114. Citation available online here.

4 Karsten Harries, Infinity and Perspective (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 101. Citation available online here.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Great post M. Well spotted by the student too!

    I think it's important to note that Bruegel is intentionally mixing his sources, rather stating a dominance or preference for the Ovidian or Flemish source.

    It was not uncommon for Bruegel, or any other Flemish artist to mix classical, folkloric or examples from scripture in their iconographical choices – this being predicated more on what elements of their audience would respond to.

    Hence, the more devout would respond to Christian elements, others(such as the less literate) would respond to the folkloric elements and intellectuals would appreciate the Ovidian elements.

    It is also important to note that this particular work is largely thought to be a copy of a Bruegel original, hence the design can be attributed to him, but not the execution. There is mention of it in the de Vries reference you cite, as well as a radiocarbon and dendrochronological analysis you can access via JSTOR

    For those interested in exploring Bruegel's interest in depicting Dutch Proverbs, you can navigate around a painting with this title on the Google Art Project, observing the many amazing details, including some congruous elements with this piece.

    On another related note, there was a fabulous podcast on Ovidian interepretation by Renaissance and Baroque artists presented recently by the Professor Paul Barolsky at the NGA. It was very enlightening, particularly the examples given to demonstrate how artist such as Rubens and Correggio deliberately altered Ovidian elements to suit their own allegorical purposes!

    Kind Regards

  • M says:

    Thanks for all of the great links, H! I look forward to listening to that podcast. I agree: it seems most likely that Bruegel is referring to more than one literary/cultural interpretation within this painting. This is an idea that I stress to my students (and stressed even before learning about the corpse!) by showing how this painting is influenced by an oral tradition (proverb) and literary tradition (Ovid).

    And yes, some people do not believe the extant copy of "Fall of Icarus" was actually created by Bruegel. The painting is also heavily restored, which I imagine makes it difficult for connoisseurs and scholars to agree on an attribution.

  • Jane and Lance Hattatt says:

    This is extraordinary, and utterly fascinating. Previously we should have considered that we knew this painting reasonably well and it is, of course, often reproduced. The inclusion of a second corpse we were completely unaware of and which, as you have done here, opens the mind to speculation. The reference to Cain and Abel is most interesting, as is what you cite about swords into ploughshares.

  • Dr. F says:


    Sorry, but I don't think the little blob of light is a corpse. These paintings were not meant to be viewed under magnification. Also, the sword and bag look more like the plowman's equipment.

    To me the most obvious meaning is that the three participants, even the dog, seem oblivious to the fate of poor Icarus.


  • H Niyazi says:

    @Frank – What are you basing that statement on? This was not a devotional work planned to sit behind an altar!

    There is a great deal of precedent, leading back to the van Eycks and Hieronymous Bosch, indicating that Northern artists included minute details for the pleasure of their patrons to search and delight in finding and explaining.

    There is a convex leans on the very centre of van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait(1434), not to mention magnification implements (spectacles) depicted in his Madonna with Canon van der Paele(1436) Even such a basic lens would have provided a means for private viewers to gaze and delight at these smaller details, otherwise they would not have been included.

    This mode of viewership you mention is particular only to devotional works in public spaces, especially in Italy – transplanting this to private works, executed with the virtuoso precision of the Northern artists does not make sense, in an historical or practical sense. They are designed to be looked at in close proximity!


  • Dr. F says:


    In the words of the immortal Chico Marx, "Who are you gonna believe, me or your own two eyes?" Even with M's blow up it is hard to see a corpse. It's like looking at a cloud and thinking it resembles a rabbit.


  • H Niyazi says:

    *sorry for the deleted post M!*

    @Frank – If you want to ignore the visual traditions of Northern artists and rely on a Chico Marx quote to back up your claim, no one will stop you!

    Why is that blob there, did the usually meticulously precise Bruegel slip over a banana peel?!


  • Dr. F says:


    In M's enlargement there is a tree trunk to the right of the "blob of light." To the right of the trunk there are other blogs of light. What are they?

    I don't know about Breugel but artists would initially cover the whole surface with white, and then paint over it. They did not feel the need to cover the whole surface. It looks to my own two eyes that Breugel just chose to let small gaps of light shine through the woods.

    I cannot imagine an artist leaving (except as a joke) an important feature of a painting in such obscurity.


  • M says:

    Frank, you're definitely entitled to your own opinion, and I'm glad that you've spoken up. Personally, I think that there is too much care in this "blob" to suggest that it was an accident – especially since there are different colors and lines on the circular shape itself (and colors that don't appear in the surrounding shrubbery).

    I did a rough figuring of the math, and the size of this corpse's head is 2/3" on the actual canvas – which is a little bit bigger in scale than the detail image from my post! I think the size of this detail suggests that its includsion was intentional. I also agree with Hasan' interpetation of this painting within the Northern tradition of meticulous detail and the inclusion of entertaining vignettes for the viewer.

    That being said, though, I'm glad you shared your own thoughts on the piece!


  • Dr. F says:

    M and H:

    I have no more to say on the subject but I leave with Max Friedlander's summary of Bruegel.

    "In his ever-present endeavour to outline the action, to seize and define the passing movement, he lays no great weight on the subtleties of line or colour. He is more interested in the physical than in the psychological side, in the type rather than in the individual….And the irresistible momentum of the whole leaves the onlooker no time to criticize the details. (From Van Eyck to Bruegel, 1956).


  • Lori Witzel says:

    Hi H Niyazi et al – I am hoping you can share some sources for "There is a great deal of precedent, leading back to the van Eycks and Hieronymous Bosch, indicating that Northern artists included minute details for the pleasure of their patrons to search and delight in finding and explaining."

    I'm writing on the Beata Humilitas panels by Pietro Lorenzetti, and I had just that question about the fine detail and the spatial relationship between viewer and painting. Please share, do tell, etc.!

  • M says:

    Hi Lori – thanks for your comment! You can find information about the minute details (as part of the Northern Renaissance tradition) in any general art history textbook.

    I'm not sure what the aims and scope of your Lorenzetti paper entail, but it will probably be difficult to make a historical connection between him and the Northern Renaissance tradition. For one thing, Pietro Lorenzetti worked in Siena (Italy), whereas the Northern Renaissance artists are located on the other side of Europe. In addition, Pietro Lorenzetti was creating art about 100 years before the first Northern Renaissance painters who championed this idea of minute detail (such as Jan van Eyck). Some scholars interpret the Northern interest in details as a continuation of details found in medieval art, but I still think that the geographic difference between these two paradigms will make it difficult for you to draw a specific connection.

    However, if you are doing research as to how Pietro's attention to detail was construed to please a patron, you may be able to make a better argument. Is there any contractual information specifying details that the patron may have wanted for the panels? (It's too bad there isn't more information about Pietro. Even the earliest art historians like Ghiberti and Vasari chose to focus on his brother, Ambrogio!).

    Good luck in your research and writing!

  • H Niyazi says:

    Cheers for that M! I was about to write a similar response.

    @Lori – The Lorenzettis appear in books about medieval and early Renaissance art, though my personal suggestion for a great resource is Poeschke et al Italian Frescoes – The Age of Giotto 1280-1400 published in 2005 by Abbeville Press.

    Carlo Volpe also did an exhaustive catalogue volume on Pietro Lorenzetti, published 1989, but it is only in Italian.

    As M mentioned, any decent text on The Northern Renaissance will cover its stylistic nuances. If you want a good starting point, Susie Nash's Northern Renaissance Art for Oxford is a great way to jump into it.

    Good luck!

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    A mysterious body in the bushes, or lack thereof? This post (and the ensuing thread) has me thinking of a favourite film: Antonioni's "Blow-Up," which is all about close looking, sensory evidence, etc.

    Another close-looking thought (and here I'm thinking of Lori's comment): might the book arts provide another way of thinking about this issue of "fine detail and the spatial relationship between viewer and painting."


  • Michael Robinson says:

    In viewing the scene from land and including the figures of shepherd, ploughman etc., its worth noting how the Breughel painting differs substantially in conception from the two traditions of woodcut illustration of this passage, which show only the figures of Daedalus and Icarus: in various forms Metamorphoses was one of the most widely printed and circulated texts of the day
    Lodovico Dolce ‘Le Trasformationi’ Venice 1553 (seven editions by 1570)
    and in the cycle of 178 wodcuts produced by Bernard Salomon (Lyon: 1577) and reproduced and reworked in various illustrated French, German and Dutch vernacular recensions and popular retellings of the Metamorphosis, at least 25 editions to 1652.
    (The first Dutch illustrated Ovid, Antwerp: Peeter Beelart, 1595, post-dates the painting)

    Perhaps worth noting also where Breughel’s image differs from Ovid’s text:
    “Hos aliquis tremula dum captat harundine pisces,
    aut pastor baculo stivave innixus arator
    vidit et obstipuit, quique aethera carpere possent
    credidit esse deos. …”
    Ovid Met. VIII 217-220
    (Now some fisherman spies them, angling for fish with his flexible rod, or a shepherd leaning upon his crook, or a ploughman, on his plough-handles – spies them and stands stupefied, and believes them to be gods, that they could fly through the air.
    Frank Justus Miller trans., Loeb Edition, 1916.)

    Clearly only the shepherd potentially might be ‘vidit et obstipuit’ – the other figures are entirely indifferent. In the context of swords and ploughshares, this to me confirms Baldwin’s suggestion of an allusion to Luke 9:62 No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. AV 1611 [“Niemant sijn hant aenden ploech slaende ende achterwaerts siende en is bequaem totten rijcke Godts.” Louvin (1548) “Niemant en is bequame tot den Koninckrijcke Gods, die syne hant aenden ploech slaet, ende achterwaerts siet.” Deux-Aesbijbel (1562) – there is no evidence which of the vernacular versions Breughel preferred. Baldwin appears unaware that a biblical text was first printed in Dutch in 1477 with additional vernacular versions in 1542, 1548 and 1562] Therefore the figure in the bush might be taken to be an allusion to a verse preceding, 60 “Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” AV 1611 [Latet ghescieden dat die dooden hen dooden begrauen, maer gaet ghy henen ende vercondicht het rijc Gods, .” Louvin (1548) Laet de doode hare dooden begrauen, maer du, gaet henen ende verkondicht het Koninckrijcke Gods..” Deux-Aesbijbel (1562) – see also Mat.8:22] Both suggest that the ploughman’s indifference to Icarus and focus on his work might be, in part, a form of spiritual contemplation through labor.


  • Michael Robinson says:


    There was a long medieval and later renaissance tradition of viewing classical texts as veiled allegories of divine revelation – Virgil’s fourth Eclogue as a prophecy of Christ is perhaps the most famous example. This tradition is evident in the many Latina and vernacular commentaries and recensions of Metamorphosis, probably because the text begins with the creation of the world like the Bible and is illustrated with similar woodcuts; a little of the flavor of these versions can be gleaned from reading in English Arthur Golding’s translation (London: W. Seres, 1567) or less so in Sandys’s text and his notes (first five books London 1621, complete London:1626). Icarus is most definitely a figure of immoderation and deviation from the mean, before attempting flight he is warned by Daedalus:

    Instruit et natum “medio” que “ut limite curras,
    Icare,” ait “moneo, ne, si demissior ibis,
    unda gravet pennas, si celsior, ignis adurat.
    Inter utrumque vola. ..
    Ovid Met. VIII 203-6
    I warne thee (quoth he), Icarus, a middle race to keepe.
    For if thou hold too low a gate, the dankenesse of the deepe
    Will overlade thy wings with wet. And if thou mount too hie,
    The Sunne will sindge them. Therfore see betweene them both thou flie.
    Golding, 1567

    In such a context, given also the widespread general awareness among the educated of the writings of Christian Hermeticists like Reuchlin and Bruno if not familiarity with their writings in depth and detail, and given that Breughel worked for a sophisticated audience it seems not implausible to suggest that given the indifference to Icarus’s fate the overall composition is designed to suggest also a neo-platonic harmony of the four elements, earth air water and fire – and this proposal might explain why, in order to include fire, the sun is shown low in the horizon rather than at high noon as is suggested by the text and the woodcut tradition of illustration. The opening of Book one is a meditation on this theme – though obviously Breughel is not depicting the ‘Golden Age’ when neither spade nor plough nor labor were necessary to produce sustenance.

    In offering these few thoughts on possible meanings and referents I am not suggesting any one is exclusive, or indeed there is any one correct meaning. I think Breughel’s works and others similar were designed not only as luxury objects to visual pleasure, but were designed to give intellectual pleasure also; to be an evocative framework to call out numerous ideas or sayings from memory into action in what was then conceived as the ‘theater of the mind’ [for an introduction to this concept and its many versions and ramifications see Francis A Yates ‘The Art of Memory,’ 1966] And, as with contemporary editions and versions of classical texts like Metamorphoses or selections of quotations like Erasmus’s Adagia, generate within the viewer an interplay of the many and varied aspects of what were then considered ‘timeless wisdom.’

  • M says:

    Ben – I'm curious to see Antonioni's "Blow-Up" now! Thanks for the recommendation. I also like your thought about the book arts and spatial relationship. I often think about spatial relationship when I'm studying the "book arts" of art history textbooks! 🙂 It's quite a different experience looking at a reproduction than an actual painting. Sigh. Melancholy pervades art history. Not only are we chronologically distanced from the works of art (and their historical context), but we often our physically distanced from the objects themselves (and are reliant upon reproductions).

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Michael Robinson. I realized from your comment how the word "precisely" could be misleading in my post, in conjunction with Bruegel's scene and Ovid. As you said, Bruegel does not exactly follow the story of Icarus from Ovid's "Metamorphosis." When writing "precisely" I meant to emphasize this painting includes all of the characters that Ovid describes. It's too problematic of a word choice, though, and I've removed it. (Thanks for keeping me on my toes!)

    Your Ovid translation that I show my students is slightly different from yours (e.g. "stupified" is replaced with "astonishment"), but the general sentiment is the same. I think I might prefer the translation you presented, though!

    Also, I like the biblical reference for "putting the hand to the plough." I didn't think of that one! I also agree with you: I don't think any of these interpretations or references are exclusive. Bruegel seems to have had an educated (almost undoubtedly humanist) audience in mind for this painting.

  • M says:

    Lori Witzel, in case you look back at this post, I wanted to share a quote that H Niyazi posted on his own blog.

    "Symbols in the Renaissance are always to some degree disguised to look as if they belong and only become noticeable on closer inspection….such symbols deepened the meaning and extended the viewers' attention as they puzzled over out the significance of certain strange inclusions in the painting" (See Marcia Hall, "The Sacred Image of the Age in Art," p. 10).

    Although I haven't seen Hall's book in person, you may be interested in looking at her book as a source for details in Renaissance paintings.

  • kelsey cook says:

    Straight up I see a head.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.