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By Culturekiosque Staff

MADRID, 28 SEPTEMBER 2010 — The Spanish Minister of Culture, Ángeles González Sinde, announced last Thursday the discovery of The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day, a previously unknown work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1527 - 1569), the key figure within 16th-century Flemish painting. It has been attributed to the artist by the Museo del Prado following several months of study and the restoration of the painting at the Museum. The Prado now has an advantageous option to purchase the painting, currently owned by a private Spanish collection.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/1530-1569)
The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day
Glue-size tempera on linen
148 x 270.5cm. Ca.1565-1568
Private Spanish collection
Photo courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado

For Prado officials, the reappearance of this painting is a major discovery for the history of European art. Together with Quintin Massys and Joachim Patinir (both of whom Bruegel surpassed), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the "new Bosch", as he was considered in his own day, constituted the group of the three most important Flemish artists of the century.

Following his early death in 1569, Bruegel’s works were highly sought after by collectors. In the present time only works from between 1557 and 1568 are known, constituting a brief period of activity of just over a decade. Such was the demand for his paintings that in March 1609 his younger son, Jan Brueghel, wrote to Federico Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan, to inform him that he had been unable to locate a single original work by the artist to send him as the Emperor (Rudolf II) had spent a great deal in order to acquire them all. Proof of this statement is the fact that the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which houses the former imperial collection, has twelve of the forty autograph paintings — most of them signed — that are accepted as such in the latest monograph on the painter (Manfred Sellink, 2007). That list now increases to forty-one with the discovery of this autograph work from a private Spanish collection, formerly in the Medinaceli collection.

Up until now only one autograph work by Bruegel was known in Spain: the panel of The Triumph of Death of around 1562, in the Museo del Prado. It was formerly in the Spanish royal collection and is recorded in the inventory of La Granja of 1774. Recent research has shown that it had belonged to the Duke of Medina de las Torres (son-in-law of the Count-Duke of Olivares) in Italy, forming part of his Neapolitan guardaroba in 1641, and that the Duke had it sent to Spain in 1651. It is also known that there was a second work by the artist in Spain, The Tower of Babel, now in the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, which belonged to Queen Isabella Farnese in the 18th century.

As with Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s compositions reveal a critical attitude typical of the day towards peasants, drinkers and drunkards, as well as towards beggars...

Of the forty works included in Sellink’s monograph only two are in private hands: Haymaking of 1565, in the Lobkowicz collection in Prague, and the small tondo of The Drunk pushed into a Pigsty (20cm diameter) of 1557, sold at Christie’s London in 2002 and now in a private New York collection. The list can now be expanded with the addition of this canvas from a private Spanish collection, whose subject is known as The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day. This large format work — the largest known by the artist — with its complex composition can be considered the most important discovery relating to a work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder to be made in many years.

The Subject of The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day

The canvas depicts the Saint Martin’s Day wine festival. The 11th of November, the saint’s feast day, was celebrated by eating "Saint Martin’s Goose", coinciding with the autumn pig-killing, while the new wine made from the recently picked grape harvest, known as Saint Martín’s wine, was sampled. The coincidence of the saint’s feast day with the end of the grape picking meant that Saint Martin’s Day became associated with a free distribution of wine to country people outside city gates. As a result, and despite the presence of Saint Martin in the painting, dividing his cloak on the right, this is not a religious composition or a devotional work, nor, however, is it a genre scene. The focus of the composition is the celebration of Saint Martin’s Day as it took place in Flanders and in the Germanic world at this period, where it had something of the character of a bacchanal and was the prelude to the winter carnival. Its iconographic precedent is to be found in a painting by Bosch known from a tapestry in the collection of Patrimonio Nacional. Bruegel’s painting clearly expresses an ironic tension between the charity of Saint Martin (often depicted from the 15th century onwards as a fashionably dressed aristocrat) and the excesses of the feast that bears his name.

The composition is set in late autumn with numerous bare trees and is located outside a city gate, the architectural style of which suggests the Porte de Hal in Brussels, and near to some country dwellings. In the centre the artist has located an extremely large barrel of wine painted in a red tone and standing on a wooden scaffolding structure. Around it are a crowd of varied figures: young and old men, women, some with children, peasants, beggars and thieves, all attempting to obtain the largest possible quantity of wine.

While some of the figures who have succeeded in filling their various containers are now back on the ground, others, in their attempt to reach the wine, are clinging to the supports of the scaffolding or have cast themselves onto the barrel or are leaning forward at considerable risk to themselves in order to collect the wine as it emerges from the barrel, using the widest range of receptacles, including hats and shoes. Bruegel reveals his dazzling mastery in arranging and fitting together the group of around one hundred figures, creating the effect of a mountain of humanity driven by gluttony: a sort of Tower of Babel of drinkers. The artist creates a deliberate contrast between the central group around the barrel and the much more stable, pyramidal group that depicts the charity of Saint Martin on the right. The composition is completed on the opposite side on the left by the figures who are clearly suffering from the effects of the wine, and here Bruegel depicts those who have been carried away by the sin of gluttony rather than following the path of virtue, in contrast to Saint Martin. Examples of such figures include one vomiting, another lying unconscious in his own vomit on the ground, two men fighting and the woman offering her baby wine.

As with Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s compositions reveal a critical attitude typical of the day towards peasants, drinkers and drunkards, as well as towards beggars, who also appear in the painting. Painted at a key moment of the Reformation, whose ideas Bruegel shared, the present painting reflects to some extent the issue of the cult of saints and the efficacy of good works, of which Saint Martin’s charity was among the finest examples. In addition, we should probably take account of Erasmus’ satires on saints’ feast days, in which gluttony becomes the first of the Capital Sins.

In this sense there is a clear iconographic parallel between the present painting by Bruegel and the central panel of The Haywain by Bosch of around 1516 (Museo del Prado), although the depiction in that work is of a symbolic and allegorical nature. Bruegel’s composition remains firmly rooted in the reality of his own time.

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