Brueghel prudence 1559
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The original drawing, in the Royal Museum, Brussels, is signed “Brueghel” and dated 1559. This is probably one of the earliest finished Virtues drawings, as it is one of only 7 that included an H in his signature.
Prudence was not to be understood as merely caution or circumspection, it was wisdom, good sense, the ability to distinguish between good and bad and to guide action accordingly. The Latin motto indicates something of the scope and special standing of prudence ” If you wish to be prudent, think always of the future, and weigh all conceivable outcomes (contingencies).” According to Coornhert, prudence was the prerequisite for a good life – that is, a life of goodness. Is there anything more worth mens striving than wisdom?…Wisdom is the sole mistress who can lead men to the right use of wealth, health, life itself, and also the other virtues; for without wisdom, all other virtues are blind. Thanks to wisdom, the wise man knows how to avoid the broad path of sin; it helps him to choose the right , straight way which leads to a virtuous life.
The allegorical figure of prudence stands on, under and next to objects symbolizing various kinds of such wisdom: On her head she carries a sieve (to sift between good and evil), in her hand a mirror (self knowledge), and a coffin – the inevitable death that awaits all men. People prepare for winter, getting food stored, bundling fuel, saving money. The buckets represent the quenching of human passions that can rage and destroy. A man lies sick in bed, preparing his last will and testament, while a doctor tests a fluid, presumably from the dying man. In the lower right corner is a bowl with a spoon standing upright, which is an allusion to a popular Dutch ditty expressive of one’s joy in knowing tomorrow is secure.
(from the book Graphic Worlds of Peter Bruegel The Elder H Arthur Klein)