A closer look at the masterpiece, The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) Gigapixel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. An immersive experience which lets you explore The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) like never before. Detail by detail, the painting comes to life in front of your eyes : mingle with Bruegel’s creatures.
The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is one of the masterpieces at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.
The Royal Museums acquired the painting in 1846 thinking it was the work of his son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
The work was then attributed to Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) until 1898 when the date and signature “MDLXII / Brvegel” were found in the bottom left-hand corner, hidden by the frame.
Thus the painting was finally attributed to its legitimate creator, Bruegel the Elder.
Iconography & composition
“And There Was War In Heaven…”
The work details the first confrontation between Good and Evil, even before the Fall of Man, when the most powerful angel, Lucifer (or “light-bearer”) turns upon the divine authority. Following this, he is chased from heaven by Archangel Michael upon God’s orders, bringing about the fall of the other rebel angels.
When they fall, the rebel angels are transformed into demons and are condemned to the pits of darkness.
The painting’s surface is horizontally divided into two roughly even halves: the heavens take up the upper part of the work, whilst hell is represented below.
The light hues of the heavens contrast with the rich, sombre tones of hell, where ochres and warm shades of brown blend together.
The composition as a whole, due both to the subject and the painter’s artistic choices, reinforces the idea of the fight between Good and Evil – a recurring theme in the works of Bruegel the Elder.
At the centre of the dramatic and tumultuous composition appears Archangel Michael. Wings spread and wearing a shiny gold armour, his face is a picture of calm whilst his cape, as if suspended in mid-air, forms a magnificent drape.
He holds a shield upon which we can make out a red Latin cross on a white background – a symbol of the Resurrection.
The Archangel’s right foot rests on the stomach of the seven-headed monster described in Apocalypse (12:7-23), giving him a moment of relative stability.
Tine L. Meganck, post-Doctoral research fellow at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, reads the passage about the fight between Michael and the dragon, taken from the Apocalypse:
“And there was war in heaven Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. And the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”
The presence of this Apocalyptic monster shows Bruegel’s originality as he brings together two biblical stories, one from the beginning of time and the other from the end.
Down the centuries, the stories of Lucifer and the Apocalyptic monster have become merged.
This iconographic ambiguity is not a coincidence as, by referring to these two stories, Bruegel shows the omnipresence of the fight between Good and Evil, and one of its essential components, Pride.
In this painting, Bruegel brings together time and space in one all-encompassing image.
Brandishing his sword above his head, Saint Michael slays the Apocalyptic dragon before hurling him and the fallen angels to the depths of hell.
The dragon’s contorted movement, with his belly to the sky and seven heads thrown back, already hints at what is to come.
In the background, an infernal spiral of demonic people pours down.
Bruegel’s Sources Of Inspiration
1. References To Hieronymus Bosch’s Work
Lucifer and the dragon are accompanied by rebel angels who, as they fall, transform into demons and other hybrid monsters with Boschesque peculiarities – such as the figure with the hat to the right of Archangel Michael.
The artist has also left numerous humorous hints in his work.
In particular, in the bottom left-hand corner, just above Bruegel’s signature.
Here we can see a devil, half-human, half-lizard, with his head lowered to bite his calf and showing his rear-end to the viewer, a sign of contempt.
2. The New World And The Culture Of Cabinets Of Curiosities
Tangible links to the New World abound in Bruegel’s work.
Explorations of the American continent became ever more prevalent throughout the 16th century, and the fauna, flora and indigenous people of the New Continent became the subject of detailed observations, recorded and brought back by the first explorers. Numerous illustrated notebooks of botany, zoology and even cartography were published.
This penchant for the New World also brought about a significant rise in trading, for which the port of Antwerp was to become one of the epicentres. During the reign of Charles V, towns were one of the most important financial centres for emerging capitalism and a fledgling global economy.
The discovery of far-away continents and ancient cultures created a surge of new knowledge.
Numerous works of natural history and series of prints detailing such discoveries and new knowledge were in circulation in the second half of the 16th century, demonstrating a wish to create some form of encyclopaedia. The most striking expression of this wish to catalogue knowledge is the apparition of cabinets of curiosities. These cabinets provided a means for putting together structures which gave a relative classification of “the objects of the world”.
Most collectors from the time distinguished what was man-made, known as artificalia, from what was created by nature, naturalia.
This binary division of Art versus Nature, whose roots lie in ancient philosophy, is also presented in Bruegel’s canvas. The artist “filled” his composition as a collector would have filled a cabinet of curiosities.
Bruegel’s fallen angels are made up different natural elements or naturalia (objects made by nature).
Their naturalistic appearance implies a detailed study of the visible world, as if he had observed them in cabinets of curiosities. Take, for example, the central figure, just below Michael’s right foot, whose ornate black and yellow patterned wings are indisputably those of a Machaon butterfly (Papilio machaon) – a particularly beautiful species of butterfly which lives on the European and American continents. Its soft, angel-like hair, the evocatively sweet strawberry-shaped body and the exotic flower-tail, make this one of the masterpiece’s most seductive demons.
It is not surprising that, as an attentive observer of the world around him, Bruegel used other rare animals from the New World in his Fall of the Rebel Angels.
Exotic animals were particularly prized by collectors. Due to their rarity and unfamiliarity, they were often perceived as monstrous. Thus, the armadillo shell (from the Cingulata family), with its classic bony plates and its ribbed tail, transforms into heavy metallic armour as it falls deeper into the shadows.
The armadillo, which lives only on the American continent, was a real source of curiosity for Bruegel’s contemporaries. However, prints and other illustrations which Bruegel would surely have known about, were already making the appearance of this exotic animal known in Europe.
This creature’s presence suggests that Bruegel was familiar with the descriptions of the first explorers of the American continent.
The fact that in this work Bruegel associates the armadillo to a demonic representation is characteristic of a particular perception of the New World.
Among the naturalia, Bruegel also uses identifiable parts of crustaceans, molluscs and fish, which he sometimes combines together and at other times reproduces as they are, as in the case of the blowfish (Tetraodontiformes from the tetraodontidae family) depicted in the upper right-hand corner.
This exotic fish from the Pacific and Indian oceans is recognisable by its prominent teeth, its spines, and, above all, by the fact that it fills its abdomen with water when threatened. It is, understandably, located under the sword of one of the angels fighting alongside Archangel Michael.
These monstrous creatures are composed not only of naturalia but also of artificialia (man-made objects).
The detailed representation shows the artist’s in-depth knowledge of this type of collectable object. He equips various fallen angels with artificial attributes such as scientific or musical instruments, arms and armour, ethnographic objects and even works of art.
One of them, for example, is equipped with a sort of breastplate made from a sundial. The two parts of the armour are linked by a leather strap.
This type of portable clock was generally made from ivory and was highly prized by collectors due to its precious nature. The compass in the middle, made from a needle and a bronze plaque, is embedded into the ivory. It tells the time based on the position of the sun.
Bruegel took his attention to detail so far as to paint the different inscriptions on the sundial in red and black. The other circles represent the signs of the zodiac which often figure on this type of instrument. Oriented in this way, the sundial takes on a very specific meaning: it recalls the omnipresence of the fight between Good and Evil, echoing the amalgamation of the two stories, one from the beginning and the other from the end of time. The instrument further reminds the viewer to use his time on earth wisely.
This type of sundial was also believed to be a measuring instrument capable of correcting earthly chaos and keeping people more in sync with the regularity of the universe. By transposing the sundial onto the back of this fallen angel, Bruegel seems to treat these ideas with a certain irony.
The nearly exhaustive inventory of arms and armour detailed here by Bruegel gives his Fall of the Rebel Angels a unique quality.
These artefacts form a significant part of the first modern collections, in particular in the royal collections.
Beyond Archangel Michael’s shining armour, the composition is teeming with examples, including some from Ottoman culture which show once again the artist’s precise knowledge of this type of artefact.
Among the artificialia, it is also possible to distinguish a turban adorning the head of one of the monsters.
The presence of such an item evokes a reference to the Portrait of a Man (1433) by Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441), now held at The National Gallery, London.
On the back of a nearly naked devil with a head of flamboyant red hair pointing downwards, it is possible to make out some red and white feathers.
These feathers are believed to be references to representation of American Indian culture which started to spread across Europe at this time.
This detail echoes the idea that people had of these peoples at the time – generally living naked in huts and sometimes even with cannibalistic morals. It is not surprising then that Bruegel placed these references in the demonic part of his composition.
Set against a celestial light blue background, the faithful angels appear robed in white. They are armed with swords or divine trumpets whose music aims to encourage the fighters.
Far away, some angels are already proclaiming victory with their horns, suggesting a positive result from the battle.
Towards A Political Interpretation
The myriad heads pointing down, legs in the air, birds falling from the sky and flying fish, make The Fall of the Rebel Angels perhaps the Bruegel’s most literal representation of a world in turmoil.
With the pure angels who transform into a variety of the most unimaginable monsters Bruegel vividly shows the infernal consequences of failure to respect the established order. For some, this work shows the attention Bruegel paid to the turmoil of his period. It can even be considered to foreshadow the political and religious upheaval that was threatening the Netherlands at the time.
At the time, Margaret of Parma was the Regent of the Netherlands. She was advised by the powerful Cardinal de Granvelle. History remembers Granvelle as a hated politician, but he was also a great patron, hosting artists in his palace, and a great collector of artificialia and naturalia, the type of enthusiast that Bruegel targeted. He owned at least one more of Bruegel’s works. In 1561, Granvelle was named Archbishop of Malines. This position led to a power struggle with the local nobility, including the young William of Orange. Whilst Orange himself was not a great collector, he had inherited one of the Flemish master’s works, which was the subject of great envy: Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. It was one of these paintings that Bruegel tried to surpass in The Fall of the Rebel Angels.
In 1562, Orange made his Brussels palace the home of the “League against Granvelle”. As for Granvelle, he reported Orange’s growing disobedience to the King. From a theatre performance organised that same year, we can deduce that the population also felt that tensions had reached a peak. Rhetoricians from Brussels organised a competition on the issue of “How to maintain peace in these countries”. Different participants mentioned Lucifer’s disobedience as a negative example; pride led to discord and disorder, which were a threat to peace. Bruegel was familiar with the culture of both the rhetoricians and the court collectors. We can therefore ask the question as to whether, by emulating Bosch – particularly with The Garden of Earthly Delights in Orange’s possession – Bruegel was targeting the collector Granvelle or his fight for power.
In Bruegel’s work, the representations of a world led to apocalypse by the madness of men, were truly visionary as, in 1562, the Netherlands was yet to see the true disaster of war.
With the events which would follow only four years later with the outbreak of the Iconoclastic Crisis of 1566 and the following rebellion, the warning painted by Bruegel – pride comes before a fall – became a painful reality.
Bruegel’s sources of inspiration are a testimony to his precise and in-depth knowledge of artistic creations and the world around him. Integrated into a tale of pride, his masterpiece invites the viewer to reflect on the possibilities and dangers of humanity’s quest for knowledge and arts – a particularly attractive theme for the erudite collectors of the time, which has doubtless lost its impact over the centuries.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are a group of art museums in Brussels, Belgium. They include six museums: the Oldmasters museum, previously called “Royal Museum of Ancient Art”; the Magritte Museum; the Wiertz Museum; the Meunier museum; the End of Century Museum; the Museum of Modern Art.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium preserve the most important visual arts collection of Belgium. Through paintings, sculptures or drawings, all 20,000 works and six museums illustrate our History, from the 15th to the 21st century. The Old Masters, Magritte, Fin-de-Siècle, Modern (selection)Museums as well as the Wiertz and Meunier home-studios constitute a unique cultural heritage that also explores the future, functioning as a platform for societal reflection on the construction of our contemporary identities.