Pieter Bruegel > Pride
The original drawing, dating 1557, is in Paris, collection of Frits Lugt (Foundation Custodia). Click to enlarge.
Pride personified is a haughty royal lady, in rich court dress, “looking down her nose” at the world while she admires her image in the mirror. Tolnay points out Pride’s garments were high fashion for Bruegel’s period, whereas the other allegorical figures in the Sins series were clad in styles identified with the early fifteenth century..
Fashion may play a further role here, for according to Barnouw the roofs of the fantastic buildings are “ludicrous contraptions apparently suggested by contemporary fashion in headgear” and “the surrounding architecture …is a nightmarish satire on the conspicuous waste indulged in by the proud on the earth.” (All that is missing apparently are a few luxury American motor cars with fancy tail-fins and an abundance of chrome trim).
The animal counterpart at the side of Pride is, of course, the peacock flaunting ornate tail feathers.
The mirror worship of Pride is echoed and mocked by the nightly monstrosity, all head, forelegs, and peacock-feathered fish tail, who admires himself in a mirror held by a nun-mermaid. The padlock through the lips indicates enforced silence, and the nun’s gesture points to the big-mouthed braggart monsters at left. Their idiotic boasts deafen the human wearing a dunce-like cap. Barnouw suggests that the nun may be predicting that a similar padlock-punishment is in store for them, too. Tolnay calls the mirrored monster a “fool for fashion.”
Just back of him, a bird-monster contorts so as the better to admire its anus in the mirror. An arrow is deep in its back. Perhaps this implies that vanity dies hard.
Above is a gruesome group. Monsters in the garb of shepherd, nun, etc., escort a naked, terror-stricken girl. A winged demon bears a shield inscribed with a symbol of a pair of shears. Tolnay reads this as evidence that the girl has “fallen into the clutches of bawds.” Barnouw suggests the group illustrates a proverb; “’Where pride and luxury lead the way, shame and poverty bring up the rear.’”
In any case, human nakedness in the Sin fantasies of Bruegel, is in itself an indication of sin. A naked figure may be read, per se, as a human being suffering the consequences of his particular vice.
Farthest right at this level is the sin’s inevitable “house” or shop. Here is a busy “beautician’s” establishment of the 1550’s; a barbershop with trimmings. Outside, a woman gets a shampoo, administered by a wolfish demon who balances a pitcher on his head. (Acrobatics and contortions so often are interwoven with the idea of horrible punishment in these pictures!) Out of the window a barber pours slops onto the head of the helpless customer. And up above the doorway, a naked sinner squats and voids into a pan, and so onto a piece of music lying on the roof. (Barnouw calls this an enactment of the contemptuous expression “I shit on that,” indicating popular contempt for the vanities here catered to. >Note from David; I see the music statement particularly revealing in the sense that in the music world there is a literal infestation of egomaniacs singing praise to themselves, and encouraging pride and vanity in all aspects…this would be a good visual, voiding on music, to emphasize that very spirit<.) Nearby hangs a lute. Instruments and music were not alien to the barber shops of that age; they served to amuse customers waiting their turns. The roof, too, displays the barber’s license to cut hair and practice surgery, plus a mortar and pestle showing that he also dispenses drugs.
Strange structures, many with humanoid faces, are spread across the background. At top center is a strange ship-like structure which Tolnay calls a stove-pot. It is packed with nude victims, guarded by a demon whose spiked helmet completely covers his head. A tree grows through this cryptic ark. On its top we see again the recurrent symbol of the broken hollow egg in which humans huddle. This always indicates some sort of rottenness and degeneration. Below the tree is the monster-mouth to this baffling structure. It is formed of wing-like segments, and naked humans crouch to enter. It is a kind of Hell-mouth-perhaps the entrance to the ultimate, sinister sideshow in this Vanity Fair.
Just to the left, a tree grows through another ornate structure, decorated by mirrors. Smoke ascends from holes in the roof. Below is a rivulet on the banks of which sinners sit. One falls in backwards. Immersion in water in these Sin studies signifies involvement in some sort of vice or shame. A bear-like monster on a horse, his naked companion mounted behind, fords this stream of pride. Tolnay sees this as a reference to a proverb which declared: “Two proud people cannot stay long on the back of the same ass.”
In the far background of the stream, a sort of portcullis is being raised in the gate of the hat-topped castle. A crowd of naked sinners are wading or being overwhelmed by the waters.
The hat on top is torn. Birds peer out through the opening . On top, a broken eggshell seethes and steams. There are suggestions of a church about this dungeon or fortress. Also suggestive of the church is the tiara-like hat of the owl monster just below the “prow” of the ship like “stove-pot” previously pointed out. The monster is devouring a naked victim. Its quadruple hat is as though made of stacked bee-hives.
A saying warns that “Pride goes before a fall.” And so, in the background, two figures fall headlong into the lake to the right. They resemble frogs or tadpoles. One drops from the height of the cliffs beyond the lake. This is the Icarus motif again. On the shores, figures are gathered dimly, waiting to row across or perhaps to plunge in.
As published, this print had both Latin and Flemish inscriptions below the picture.
The Latin means: Those who are proud do not love the gods, nor do the gods love those who are proud.
The Flemish freely translated:
Almighty God detests the vice of Pride, and God in heaven by Pride is defied.
Clearly Bruegel symbolized here Pride in many forms, not merely the narrow sense of craving for personal admiration and prestige. There are plays here on the pride of excessive display, the pride of malicious gossip, the pride of overweening ambition, and many other aspects of the sin.
copyright 1963 Dover Publications