The wedding banquet is shown taking place in a barn in springtime. The furnishings are a parody of a rich landowner's hall. In place of a finely woven tapestry, an old blanket hangs from the wall behind the bride. The wooden tables and chairs are roughly fashioned, while an old door has been taken off its hinges to serve as a banqueting tray. The main foods on offer appear to be bread, porridge and soup. Two ears of corn on the wall, together with a rake, are conspicious reminders of the hard grind to which peasants are born. On the left, two pipers are playing the pijpzak, while on the right the most distinguished-looking guest is sitting on an upturned tub.
Real-life Sketches and Studies
According to Karel van Mander's Lives of the Netherlandish Painters (Het Schilderboeck, 1604), Bruegel would often mingle with the crowd at a rural fair or village wedding, making drawings of the people and their way of life, which he would later use in his landscape painting and religious art, as well as his genre works. And indeed, this picture has traditionally been regarded as a straightforward portrayal of peasant life. However, Bruegel injects the scene with an unmistakeable moral judgment - highlighting the fact that the marriage celebration has deteriorated into gluttony and self-indulgence. In contrast to his earlier engraving of The Vices (1556-57), which Bruegel populated with grotesque figures in the manner of Hieronymus Bosch, The Peasant Wedding is a far more naturalistic, even mundane commentary.
Pictorial Sermon Against Self-indulgence
The painting is dominated by the consumption of food and drink. Almost every guest - with the exception of the bride, her parents and their two special guests - seems to be focused on eating: even one of the two musicians stares in anticipation in the direction of the food servers. Certainly no one appears to be interested in the spiritual nature of the occasion - a point which is perhaps being made by the Franciscan monk to the distinguished gentleman on the far right: or is he merely recounting the wearisome details of previous weddings he has attended, to a patient local landowner? In the left foreground, a man is refilling a seemingly endless number of wine jugs - a motif often seen in representations of the Wedding at Cana - and a child is shown sucking its finger, a traditional symbol of hunger. The latter may have been a veiled reference to a famine which had occurred recently in Flanders.
The Mystery of the Groom
Debate continues about the identity and whereabouts of the bridegroom. One candidate is the man in the foreground, neatly dressed in black, calling for more wine. This would fit if the bride was marrying a townsman, a theory which would also explain the presence of a few smart urban guests. Alternatively, taking into account the fact that traditionally the groom was expected to serve the bride and her family, it might be the modest young man who takes dishes from the door carried by the two burly servants.
Peasant-Style Genre-Paintings By Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Within 2 years of completing this work, Bruegel was dead, and Flemish painting was deprived of one of its greatest practitioners. Out of 45 authenticated paintings, about a third are part of the permanent collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: an indication of the Hapsburg Monarchy's keen interest in Bruegel's art. Other famous peasant genre paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, include: The Wedding Dance (1566, Detroit Institute of Arts), The Land of Cockaigne (1567, Alte Pinakothek, Munich), and The Peasant Dance (c.1568, KM, Vienna).
Bruegel has created a virtuoso structure in his depiction of a peasant celebration: the long, crowded banquet table creates a diagonal on which all the figures in the composition are oriented. From outside, where it is still daylight, other guests are pressing into the room. One of the bagpipe-players draws our attention to the front, where he looks with curiosity at the meagre fare that is being freshly served. Two helpers are using a door that has been taken off its hinges to carry their dishes. A server who is pouring beer into more easily handled jugs and a child eating to one side close off the painting at the front. If we follow the figure at the end of the table who is passing the dishes to the wedding guests, we are led to the true protagonist, the bride. She is sitting silently in front of a length of green cloth, which has been hung along with a paper crown in her honour on the straw wall. According to Flemish custom, the bridegroom was not allowed to attend the celebrations until the evening, and the bride was not permitted either to eat or to speak beforehand. Unfortunately nothing is known about the commissioning of this work, which is probably Bruegel’s most famous. If we knew more, it might help to resolve the controversial question of whether the painting is intended to be a caricature or carry a moralising message. Bruegel scholars in Vienna agree, however, that most of the interpretative proposals made thus far have failed to reveal the true meaning of the painting. Attempts have been made, for example, to connect the large shoes with the German expression “auf großem Fuß leben” (to live in great style) or to see the two-piece bride’s crown as an indication that she is already pregnant. It is far more in keeping with Bruegel’s humanistic conception of himself to see the painting as a neutral observation without further intent. The choice of the subject was nothing decisively new in Netherlands graphic art and painting, but never before had it been taken up with such compositional and motivic density and from such a benevolent distance.
© Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery. A Brief Guide to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 2010