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I quickly found the watermill at Sint-Gertrude, which appears in ‘The Dark Day’ and ‘The Magpie on the Gibbet.’ But Bruegel’s presence is strongest at Sint-Anna, where you can stand on the spot where he set ‘The Parable of the Blind Men.’ The stream in the painting’s foreground runs the same course and although the church is now surrounded by trees, its slender spire and shuttered belfry windows is as it appears in the picture’s background. Less familiar is the old manor house, Kleine Kasteel, which has undergone many changes since it appeared to the left of the last blind man.
Elsewhere are more reminders of the artist’s work. The village church of Itterbeek, just west of Brussels, turns up in ‘The Harvest,’ while nearby Dilbeek’s church is in the background of ‘Haymaking.’
To return to the city from these outlying villages, Bruegel must have travelled through Anderlecht. According to my guidebook, the setting of ‘Winter Landscape with Birdtrap’ is visible from the hill above the Place de la Beaute, but modern buildings have entirely obscured the view – as at Place de Linde, the assumed site of ‘Massacre of the Innocents.’
Anderlecht houses the church of Saint-Pierre-Guidon, which with its ancient houses is instantly identifiable as the subject of Bruegel’s drawing, ‘Cantagalina.’
Even when buildings have survived, it’s not always possible to see them as Bruegel did. The Sint Anna barn, where ‘The Wedding Feast’ was painted, is now in private hands – and the owners don’t want people snooping around. But you can see this unassuming building from the public footpath.
‘The Wedding Feast’ and ‘The Peasant Dance’ are cast with real people, not rustic stereotypes. The Bride’s plump wry smile and the steps of the dancing couple are captured in a split second of natural movement and distinctive body language. To achieve this illusion with such apparent ease demands great skill. In ‘The Wedding Feast’ the revellers obscure each other as they would when seen in real life. One woman sits on a bench, her body hidden by the bagpipe-toting figure in the foreground. Only a foot and part of her skirt can be seen.
Bruegel’s art represents the peak of human achievement in an age of ignorance, cruelty and superstition and as such is freed from the constraints of time and place to be as relevant today as it was almost five hundred years ago.