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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Dutch Proverbs, 1559, oil on oak, 117 x 163 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker

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Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(piano music) We're in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and we're looking at Peter Bruegel's "Netherlandish Proverbs" which is wonderfully fun. It is, and it really suggests that not all that much has changed in the last four-five hundred years. It depicts well over a hundred proverbs that is sayings, and they speak too often in a humorous way - the foibles of humanity. It's interesting, because it's not a condemnation. There is a sense of joining in. Let's take a look at some of these images. Not all these parables have modern English equivalents, but some of them do. Some of the more obvious ones in the foreground can be seen pretty clearly. On the bottom left you see a man who seems to be intent on hitting his head against a brick wall. I know very well what that feels like. Of course, this is the expression "hitting your head against a wall". That is to do things repeatedly even though you have no chance of success. How about the figure on the lower right who seems to be stretching his arms toward two loaves of bread that he can barely reach? In fact, he can't quite reach from one to the other and we all know the expression "living from paycheck to paycheck". That is: "living from loaf to loaf". He can't quite make ends meet. Right next to him, and just below the table, you see somebody who's holding his head and rather upset that he spilled his porridge. "It's useless to cry over spilt milk." He's realizing that he can't scoop it back in his vessel. These are all things that we do anyway. We know they're silly and fruitless, and we do them anyway. There's real pleasure in moving through this and recognizing visually what is always an auditory saying. One of my favorites and one of the silliest is showing the pies or tarts that are being used as roofing material on the house on the upper left. This is a reference that doesn't really have an equivalent in modern English and it is "tiling one's house with pies". That is: "use one's wealth in vain". The image as a whole creates this child booklike landscape where we can wonder with our eyes and explore and be delighted and in a sense make fun of ourselves. (piano music)