Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Magpie on the Gallows

This is a painting that Dutch-Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted in 1568 and left to his wife before his death. This is not merely a countryside scenery. There is something unsettling in this painting and some have suggested that it hides a secret meaning. In this painting, two men are seemingly enjoying the view to the river valley, but there is something disturbing that comes into their view – a group of dancers on the left happily passing their time in front of the gallows, which stand as an ominous reminder that one day human life comes to an end. Our attention is immediately drawn to the gallows because Bruegel depicted what seems to be an “impossible object” in art. The gallows’ posts are positioned in such a way that cannot occur in real life, with the right side receding into the distance. This alone gives the gallows in the painting a special significance. At the same time, the merry people to the side of the gallows, as well as the person who is squatting on the foreground, seem to be mocking the very symbol of death and “justice”. The contrast between their merriness, and the solitary and sombre gallows could not have been more pronounced, giving a peculiar unnaturalness to the scene. Over the years, there have been a number of interpretations put out forward regarding the magpie that sits on the gallows (as well as the one near the base of the gallows), and one of the most popular ones is that the magpie represents baseless and spiteful gossip that often leads to the gallows. This painting is currently held by the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany.

14 thoughts on “Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Magpie on the Gallows

  1. There is also an interpretation indicating that Bruegel hid two Netherlandish proverbs here, as well – “dancing under the gallows” and “shitting on the gallows,” i.e. mocking the danger and the oppressive state.

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  2. My attention is drawn to the gallows, and I agree it seems like a. Impossible object. Can’t quite pinpoint why though🤔

    Check this out – Can you see the gallows as resembling the hind legs of an animal? Perhaps a Deer? Two tree trunks form the front legs, and the canopy of green leaves forms the head. Or Are my eyes playing tricks on me.

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    1. 🙂 Perhaps I do see something like that. Actually, I won’t be surprised if I start finding more and more secrets, hidden things and meanings in this painting. Bruegel is like this and the more you stare at his paintings, the more you discover or you think you discover or see!

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      1. I really like this painting. It’s perfect for Fall. I went on a mountain hike yesterday here in Colorado and the colors of the valley are starting to look just like this. I was unfamiliar with Bruegel. So thanks for sharing this!

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      2. I really like this painting. It’s perfect for Fall. I went on a mountain hike yesterday here in Colorado and the colors of the valley are starting to look just like this. I was unfamiliar with Bruegel. So thanks for sharing this!

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Such a beautiful painting! I remember learning about Pieter in my art history class. We studied this painting by him called “The Hunters in the Snow” (1565). It remains one of my favorite paintings! I can really see a similar art style within the Hunters and the Magpie.

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  4. Thanks for the post — I love Brueghel’s work, although I’ve had to look at most of it online rather than in person. There’s always something a little unsettling about his paintings. Sometimes as here it can be subtle; sometimes it isn’t, such as “The Triumph of Death.” https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-triumph-of-death/d3d82b0b-9bf2-4082-ab04-66ed53196ccc One of my favorites is “The Harvesters” at NYC’s Metropolitan Museum, very appropriate for this time of year! https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435809

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    1. Thanks for sharing these paintings! The Triumph of Death is very unsettling and there is so much (gruesome) detail! The Harvesters is also good. I sense that the workers in the painting are very tired and there is colour black coming out near the true which is slightly disturbing- even when his paintings are innocuous, you are so right to say that there is something disquieting about them. I guess that’s part of the genius of Bruegel and his way to capture our undivided attention.

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