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The Way to Calvary, one of Peter Bruegel the Elder’s larger paintings, now at Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna ostensibly relates an episode of the Passion of Christ. Painted in 1564, the work measures 170 cm by 124 cm and represents a broad landscape populated by about 500 figures that are mostly moving from the town, in the background to the left to Golgotha in the background to the right. Other figures, peasants, shepherds and day labourers are heading into town carrying the ware they hope to sell on the market.
In their midst, the condemned men, Christ and the two thieves, are heading to the place of their execution surrounded by a troop of soldiers wearing red tunics and preceded by the two-headed eagle of the Habsburgs.
This suggests that the subject of the painting is twofold. It obviously relates the story of Christ’s Passion, but it also refers to the brutal political and religious repression that the Low-Countries experienced in Bruegel’s dayS, when the Spanish authorities put heretics to death, “the men by the sword, the women buried alive.” The Reformation was enjoying considerable success at the time, in Flanders and Brabant.
The scene is complex and almost takes the shape of a film script that the eye explores and discovers by successive stages.
One might even say that it’s a very large miniature. Some of the details are so tiny that it would appear desirable to examine all of it under a magnifying glass.
The scene is dominated by a tall and improbable rock formation capped with an equally improbable mill. The obvious question here is: how on earth did they manage to carry the grain up to be ground and the flour down to be sold?
Bruegel’s mill is presumably a symbolic form, and it is interesting to note that the miller is shown standing, cut ouj against the sky, just outside the mill, at the very spot where the Flemish pictorial tradition put the figure of God the Father, observing the earth and its inhabitants from his throne in the clouds. This suggests that the mill is a metaphor for the starry heavens that turn day and night above our heads like a great mill.
Although Christ himself can be found at the precise centre of the painting, he is well hidden: a tiny(...)
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