Celebrating the legacy of Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Brussels

Pieter Bruegel the Elder is notable for introducing a bird’s eye view perspective of landscapes into art and ‘Hunters in the Snow’, displayed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is regarded the first winter landscape painting.

Exhibitions celebrating the legacy of the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder are being during 2019. Stuart Forster heads to Brussels and the neighbouring Pajottenland district to find out why.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder is one of the most celebrated Flemish artists of the Renaissance. He died in 1569 and, 450 years on from his death, exhibitions are being held in and around Brussels to showcase the artist’s legacy.

Bruegel is celebrated for his depictions of rural peasant life, winter landscapes reflecting the harshness of weather during a period that has been dubbed a ‘Little Ice Age’ plus paintings depicting angels, demons and fantasy creatures.

He is notable for introducing bird’s eye view perspective of landscapes into art and Hunters in the Snow, displayed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is regarded the first winter landscape painting.

People viewing ‘Beyond Bruegel’ a video installation featuring works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The permanent collection of Brussels’ Royal Museum of Fine Arts includes six original oil paintings attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Those works include The Census at Bethlehem, painted in 1566, which transposes the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem into a snowy European setting. Bruegel includes details that hint at parallels between the Roman administration in Galilee and Habsburg rule in the Spanish Netherlands.

The museum recently unveiled the Bruegel Box, a room in which videos are projected. The short films explore the details and inspiration of three of the artist’s masterpieces, including The Fall of the Rebel Angels, which is displayed in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, and two other works displayed elsewhere.

Detail from ‘The Census at Bethlehem’.

VR at Brussels’ Halle Gate

Brussels’ Halle Gate looks much like castle keep. It was once one of the fortified gates that formed part of the city’s defensive walls. To coincide with the 450th anniversary of Bruegel’s death, Virtual Reality (VR) binoculars have been installed on the walls to provide impressions of how the city and surrounding landscape looked during the lifetime of the artist. Additionally, Back to Bruegel, an exhibition about aspects of life during the 16th century, runs for a year from 18 October 2019.

Until January 2020 the Palais de la Dynastie, in central Brussels, is hosting Beyond Bruegel. Scenes from Bruegel’s paintings have been animated, highlighting characters and setting them to music in the immersive exhibition. Characters can be seen dancing and glancing about in the projections.

People viewing details from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings at ‘Beyond Bruegel.’

Contemporary interpretations of Bruegel

Several aspects of Bruegel’s landscapes were inspired from details in the villages of the Pajottenland district, roughly a dozen kilometres outside of the Belgian capital. Bruegel’s Eye is an open-air art project that encourages visitors to stroll through the countryside in which the artist worked. Contemporary artists and designers have reinterpreted aspects of Bruegel’s works in 15 installations.

Photographer Filip Dujardin’s work TOPOgrafie in the St Anna Church at Dilbeek is part of ‘Bruegel’s Eye: reconstructing the landscape’ in the Pajottenland district near Brussels.

Similarly, the Feast of Fools exhibition, at Gaasbeek Castle, features works by contemporary artists that draw inspiration on themes from Bruegel’s work.

One of the Bruegel-inspired works in the ‘Feast of Fools’ exhibition at Gaasbeek Castle.

From 15 October until 16 February 2020 the KBR (formerly known as the Royal Library of Belgium) will display its complete collection of prints designed by Pieter Bruegel the Elder at the Palace of Charles of Lorraine. The World of Bruegel in Black and White shows works with which Bruegel established his reputation.

That reputation has, arguably, never been held in higher esteem and the exhibitions around the 450th anniversary of his death looks set to introduce Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s works to a new audience.

Useful information

Brussels’ Royal Museum of Fine Arts hosts a permanent collection of paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger.  Adult tickets for the museum cost €10, entry is free to people aged 18 and under.

See the Visit Brussels and Visit Flanders websites for information about things to see and do in Brussels and the surrounding region.

Want to travel to Brussels? The Eurostar provides a direct rail connection between London and Brussels. Loganair operates direct flights to Brussels from Newcastle and the East Midlands airports. Brussels Airlines operates flights between Brussels and five airports across the United Kingdom.

A Bruegel depiction of peasants walking on ice.

Stuart Forster
By: Stuart Forster Features writer, travel journalist, travel blogger and photographer.