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Netherlandish Proverbs

In the 16th century, Dutch Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted a village scene filled with people doing nonsensical things. They are each illustrating an old Dutch saying, adage, or proverb. The painting has been called The Blue Cloak or The Folly of the World, but its actual title is Netherlandish Proverbs. It's slightly reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, but much less creepy.

The precise number of proverbs that Netherlandish Proverbs contains is somewhat uncertain because modern scholarly interpretations vary, and in some case, more than one proverb might be assigned to the same component in the painting. Critics have identified approximately 112 identifiable proverbs and idioms in the scene, although Bruegel may have included others which cannot be determined because they have either disappeared from usage or the language had changed.

Bruegel has hidden his proverbs in the characters as well as in the buildings and in the landscape in highly imaginative ways. At the center of the painting is a woman placing a blue cloak (hence the painting’s original title) over her husband, indicating that she is cuckolding him. The man biting into the wooden pillar is a hypocrite. The man who’s filling a pond after his calf drowned is one who takes action after a disaster. The person who spills his porridge, will never be able to spoon it all back into the bowl. The two men defecating out of the same hole indicates they are inseparable companions.

Proverb: “To be a pillar-biter”
Meaning: To be a religious hypocrite

Proverb: “Never believe someone who carries fire in one hand and water in the other”
Meaning: To be two-faced and to stir up trouble

Read about Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his curious painting at Amusing Planet, where you'll find several individual proverbs. You can also check out an interactive map of the painting, where you can hover over a scene and read its proverb. -via Strange Company  


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