Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Blind Leading the Blind

by Alexandra Tuschka


"Leave them, they are blind guides for the blind. But if one blind man leads another, they will both fall into the pit". (Mt 15,14) Jesus already said about the Pharisees and in his parable he was not referring to physical blindness but to spiritual blindness. The "The Blind Leading the Blind" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder illustrates the old words by having six blind men fall into a stream on a sloping terrain. In fact, only the first one has really fallen and is lying with his back on the ground. The other men follow almost automatically in our mind's eye like a domino effect: by lining up the bodies with increasing spin in the horizontal, Bruegel manages to successfully build acceleration into the image.

The men are beggars and have probably joined together to generate sympathy. Did they want to go to the church in the background to tickle out the mercy of the congregation there? The man with the green hat even wears a golden cross around his neck. The rest of the clothing is typical of the Middle Ages: waistband trousers with white stockings and black shoes, over them a long jacket held together by a belt. It is probably already a bit colder: the men each have a headdress on and a loose cloak thrown over their shoulders. Two of them have leather bags attached to their belts. The scene is set in a rural village environment. The Bible words will have been familiar to the contemporary observer. Not only were people in the Middle Ages quite Bible-literate, the parable was also part of everyday speech and was used proverbially. This is shown by the integration of the blind in the picture "The Dutch Proverbs" by the same painter. Very small and grey on the horizon, three blind people can be seen here holding each other by the shoulder. The entire work contains more than 100 Dutch proverbs, which are literally conveyed in the small scenes of the work and are not necessarily understood easily today.

In the large work of the "The Blind Leading the Blind", Bruegel painted so precisely that it was even possible to identify what some of the men were suffering from: the man in the middle with red stockings has a leucoma, a white layer of scarring over the cornea. The next man must be suffering from black cataracts, unfortunately, and the man looking so creepily at us has had his eyes gouged out - presumably in an argument or as punishment. Are we supposed to laugh at the situation or feel pity? After all, blindness was a ubiquitous affair in Bruegel's time and should not really be a motif of amusement.


The strongly caricaturing exaggeration of the figures automatically distances us from feeling too much pity. Interpretations of the work are numerous and very diverse. Thus, a subliminal criticism of the church could be meant here. Comparatively, a woodcut after Hans Holbein the Younger shows a similar theme. In the centre stands Christ, the "true light", separating the true and untrue believers from each other. On the left are simple people, on the right are all kinds of celebrities: a group of blind philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, scholars and clergy falling into the abyss. Knowledge, public confession or social recognition are thus not decisive for the right path to God. In our picture, the church, Saint Anne Pide, which by the way still exists in Itterbeeg in Belgium, could stand for this right light, which the blind literally "miss", even though one of them even wears a cross necklace.

Bruegel lived in the Spanish Netherlands, which were religiously oppressed by the Duke of Alba. He remained a Catholic throughout his life, but probably advocated humanist, critical views. Again and again, Luther also calls the Pope a guide for the blind. The omnipresent conflict between Catholics and Protestants was also marked by torture and victims of the Inquisition, which was notoriously cruel and practised little charity. Of Bruegel, at least, we know from an early biography by Karel van Mander from 1604 that he asked his wife to burn his works after death, for fear of the Inquisition. Does this speak of fear of arbitrariness or a guilty conscience due to hidden criticism? Be that as it may, we can be glad that his wife resisted this request, for Pieter Bruegel the Elder died only one year after this work.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Blind Leading the Blind

Tempera on canvas, 1568, 86 × 154 cm Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples


Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Dutch Proverbs (detail)

Oil on canvas, 117 x 163 cm, 1559, National Museums, Berlin


Hans Holbein the Younger - The "true" light

Woodcut, 1520-1525, 84 x 275 mm, British Museum, London