Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Sermon of John the Baptist

by Alexandra Tuschka

In this teeming crowd, we really have to look more closely to discover the eponymous John giving his sermon. The lines of sight of those present point to him and so the upright, bearded man a little above the centre of the picture is identified as the protagonist. It is John the Baptist in his simple penitential robe, who had already lived for some years as Akset in the desert. Now he addresses his words to the people. And although Bruegel is known as the "peasant painter", people of all classes and origins have gathered here. We see healthy people next to sick people, peasants and gypsies next to nobles, Flemings, Turks, Chinese and Spaniards together. The great differences in class and origin embody the content of the speech: the unity of all being. In this scene, not all present are yet moved by John's words. Some still seem to be debating (front left), are sceptical or hesitant, others are astonished or even lose consciousness (or is it rather an impudent yawn?). Some have also unceremoniously climbed the surrounding trees to hear the words. The words of God are addressed to all people. The people already thought they recognised the announced Messiah in John, but he pointed to Jesus:

Mk1,7 And he preached, saying, After me comes he who is stronger than I; I am not worthy to stoop down before him and untie the thongs of his shoes. 8 I baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.

The act of baptism is rudimentarily indicated here in the river we see in the background. But a much more important motif is revealed when we follow the movement of the Baptist's hand. Immediately our gaze stops at none other than Jesus himself, who stands waiting and with folded arms a little behind his cousin. Only individuals in the crowd have also turned to look at Jesus. The ignorance of the people is very strongly illustrated here and also contains a certain humour. This scene is actually set in the desert, but was often interpreted by Bruegel's contemporaries as "uncultivated land", probably due to a lack of knowledge, so that we find the scene here transposed to a forest landscape with a view of a distant town.

It is typical of Bruegel to hide the key scene somewhat and not make it immediately recognisable. This was taken to the extreme in the "Fall of Icarus", for example, in which the titular protagonist only sticks his feet out of the water. So here we are offered all kinds of opportunities to look at the small partial scenes of the painting. For example, in the front left, right next to the large tree, we recognise a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostella, one can clearly see the "pilgrim's shells" on his hat. The man a little further to the right is from China. A fortune-telling scene follows immediately to the right. And if you look very closely, you can even make out a baptism scene in the river at the back of the work. This anticipates the baptism of Christ by John and the river can be identified as the Jordan.

This painting was documented in the possession of the Infanta Clara Eugenia, who was governor of the Netherlands in the 17th century. Today it is in Budapest, and a second version of the work, painted by Pieter Bruegel the Younger, is in the Pinakothek in Munich.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Sermon of John the Baptist

Oil on oak, 1566, 95 x 160.5 cm, Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest