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Scene and story in grey

11 March 2016

Katy Hounsell-Robert sees the Courtauld’s Bruegel exhibition

Samuel Courtauld Trust

Tension: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1520-69)

Tension: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1520-69)

PIETER BRUEGEL the Elder (c.1520-69) is well known for his colourful, down-to-earth paintings of peasants and village life, landscapes of the Flemish countryside, and religious allegories: in contrast, it is refreshing to see a quiet little exhibition of three of his original “grey” (grisaille) works, together with copies and engravings of these works by contemporary painters, set in the gracious atmosphere of the 18th-century Courtauld Gallery in London.

Two of the grisailles are on religious themes, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery and Death of the Virgin (loaned from Upton House, National Trust); the third is Three Soldiers (from the Frick Collection, New York).

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (c.1565) was painted at the height of his career, four years before his death. It is a small painting, just over 24 × 34cm, suitable for a small room or chapel as a focus for meditation, and one of the few paintings that, as a devout Roman Catholic, he kept for himself. He uses this simple but highly skilled technique of applying shades of grey oil paint on oak wood with white lead to highlight the leading characters, and black charcoal for shadows, to express Christ’s humanity and his relationship with the other players.

Bruegel has chosen the most dramatic point in the story. The woman has been accused of adultery, and, by Jewish Law, is condemned to death by stoning. The priests have pretended to consult Christ, hoping to accuse him of disobeying the Law, and he has written the famous words in large Dutch letters “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

One of the priests is obviously trying to reason with him, but Christ concentrates only on the writing. Some of the crowd, deprived of their grisly entertainment, have moved away, while others are arguing about what should happen.

The woman has been portrayed with great respect by Bruegel. She is not some wanton creature, but a dignified, well-dressed lady, and stands gazing at Christ, amazed and incredibly grateful. Both the woman and Christ have unnaturally long pointing index fingers, which normally indicate teaching.

Painting in grisaille had been popular in Northern Renaissance art since the early 15th century, to make preparatory sketches for engravings, and to imitate the texture of marble and give the illusion of sculpture.

Bruegel used this technique previously many times, but he was unusual in using it as an independent picture.

Death of the Virgin is a slightly earlier grisaille. It is a night scene in a bedroom, and light seems to be naturally created from candles, firelight, and the spiritual light emanating from the Virgin, though she is physically very weak and has hardly enough energy to grasp the taper that is lovingly handed to her by St Peter. It is a realistic domestic scene, with the cat crouching by the fire, dirty plates on the table, and the exhausted woman companion snoring by the fire. Arias Montanus, the scholarly editor of the Antwerp Polyglot, said that the scene “was painted in the most skilful manner and with great piety”.

Religious and political wars were raging in the Low Countries throughout most of Bruegel’s life, and he had probably been fascinated by the mercenaries’ extravagant Spanish-style costume when he saw them off-duty in Antwerp, his home town, and got them to pose for him. Only the drummer and fife player in the Three Soldiers grisaille are clearly outlined playing, while the standard-bearer stands in the shadows.

In the exhibition is a fourth grisaille, Visit to the Farm. There is uncertainty whether it is an original Bruegel, a copy by his sons, or an original by Jan Brueghel (1568-1625), his younger son. It is a charming domestic scene in which a wealthy landowner and his wife are visiting a tenant farmer whose wife has just had a baby. The wealthy couple stand at the door tactfully offering their gifts, while the new mother handles a realistically small and scrawny naked baby. The essential cat is asleep in the cradle.

There are interesting copies and engravings of Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery. One of the earliest known engravings is by Pieter Perret in 1579. The same size as the original, it has slightly sharper outlines. The expression of compassion in Christ’s face and the mixed gratitude and relief of the woman are no longer there.

The colour copy of Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) defines the figures more clearly. The woman’s gown has become a rich dark green, and the priestly robes more luxurious, although the expression on Christ’s face has completely changed.


“Bruegel in Black and White: Three Grisailles Reunited” is at The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2, until 8 May. Phone 020 7848 2526 (recorded information only).


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