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Movie Review

Bruegel, the Mill and the Cross

by Karel Vereycken

June 2012

Film by Lech Majewski.
With Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling and Michael York.
June 2011

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Carrying of the Cross by Pieter Bruegel the elder, 1564.

The Carrying of the Cross, the large painting (170 x 124 cm), or, on could say, giant miniature (featuring some 500 figures), used as the starting point for this film, was painted in 1564 by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the elder, at a time when the Spanish Empire, under the pretext of combating heresy, imposes a bloody austerity on a prosperous and populated Flanders. 

As a matter of fact, in 1557, the Habsburg Empire and its bankers, the Augsburg based Fugger family, were bankrupt and Spain was going through a sovereign debt default. Neither the gold looted from the America’s, nor the heavy taxes raised by the terror campaigns of the Duke of Alba, saved the situation and Spain would face new bankruptcies in 1560, 1575 and 1596. 

Erasmus by Holbein.

Majewski’s film allows the non-expert public to get a glance at the real dimension of Bruegel, not only a painter with elevated philosophical ideals, but an engaged citizen in close contact with the Schola Caritatis (House of Love), a circle of Erasmian humanists around figures such as Hendrick Niclaes, the French printer Christophe Plantin and some of the early pioneers of cartography such as Abraham Ortelius and Gerard Mercator. 

Bruegel definitely had incredible guts to put in the center of his painting the Rhoode rox, the Spanish red-clothed mercenary gendarmerie and real SS enforcing Spanish occupation. Paradoxically, it was in the name of the “true religion” that they are leading Christ to Golgotha for execution. 

In 1999, in an interview with Nouvelle Solidarité, the Paris based art critic and Bruegel expert Michael Francis Gibson, who co-authored the script of the film with the symbolist Polish-American painter, photographer and filmmaker Lech Majewski, told me that for Bruegel, “the world is vast”, since “it comprises everything which exists, from early childhood till old age; from the games of children till the most abominable tortures. There exists a juxtaposition of both. That’s why I’m so impressed by the group heading towards the Golgotha in the painting The Carrying of the Cross. One sees a boy stealing the bonnet of a small child resisting and trying to grab it back. And right next to them, the killing of those unfortunates mounting the Golgotha is being prepared.” 

The film, by calling on the same method of composition strengthening mutual values and bolstering the meaning of things through oppositions, magnificently gives live to a dozen of characters arising out of the composition. Add to that a variety of special effects designed with great esthetical taste and it is the philosophy of the painter itself that is now in reach.  

The problem of symbolism

Joachim Patinir (1480-1524) .

However, certain symbolic interpretations of the filmmakers are highly questionable and, in our view, end up poisoning a film which, without these interpretations, might have been even more magnificent. Let us consider them in more detail. 

While it is clear that the viewers really have to look out to identify the figure of Christ – though placed at the center of the work, at the exact crossing if the diagonals – what comes immediately to the view of all, and therefore one of the major keys to grasp Bruegel’s intent, is a polarity comprised between two elements only separated in appearance: the huge rock with on top a mill in the background and the ambulant salesman sitting completely at the front with his back turned towards the viewer. 

It is especially in the paintings of Joachim Patinir (1480-1524), a painter associated with the friends of Erasmus in Antwerp, that one fiends such strange giant rocks and the attributes of ambulant salesmen. 

In a quite convincing way, professor Eric de Bruyne[1] has demonstrated convincingly that in Flemish painting, the ambulant salesman, which also appears on the outside panels of Jerome Bosch’s Haywagon, carries a highly philosophical concept that originated with Saint Augustine and made its come-back with the Brothers of the Common Life: it functions here as the metaphor of the human soul, which, in order to detach itself from earthly possessions, by an effort of personal will, engages to peregrinate, to perpetually move towards new grounds. A contrario, the attachment to earthly goods was considered, with reason, as the primal cause leading man to sin and his fall. 

Outside panel of Haywagon by Hieronymous Bosch

To this, one has to add that Patinir, with many others, used with great profusion the image of the rock, as a metaphor of the “just road” on which, every believer, by his personal choice, must engage himself. This, often difficult choice, is represented by these painters as a steep stony path leading to a safe place on the heights of the mountains. As a result, for quite a few painters, threatening rocks themselves became the symbol of virtue.[2]

Hence, our filmmakers suggest that the ambulant salesman, considered unrelated to the rocky landscape and the mill is nothing but a simple reference to Protestantism. The narrator tells the viewer that Bruegel replaced the traditional image of God in heaven with that of an ordinary human being, in this case, a miller. If the latter point is formally confirmed by our sense perception we still have to figure out what Bruegel’s intention was operating such a daring metamorphosis. Starting from the Renaissance, one learns in school, “man has replaced God as the measure of all things… Exit all transcendancy? Or are we facing “the Great Architect” in charge of regulating the vast cosmic rotations of the universe nobody can stop, as the film suggests to us? 

From our standpoint, which starts from taking into account the “Philosophy of Christ” which animated the Erasmians at that time and taking into account the ambulant salesman/rock metaphor, it seems that Bruegel’s message here was to suggest that a society, such as the Spanish Empire he was facing at that time, which puts on top the miller (at that time the archetype of the usurer, today one would say the City and Wall Street), brings to all the same death which it imposes here on Christ himself! Worse, blinded by the miller, also the viewer loses sight of Christ.

Flemish and Dutch proverbs are not really sympathetic to millers. Located at the outskirts of the city and working often at night, besides being accused of sexual abuse, those days rich millers were branded as thieves, fraudsters, usurers, madmen, speculators, accused of starving the people and other niceties.   Two proverbs say it all: “A hundred bakers, a hundred millers, a hundred tailors: three hundred thieves”. Or: “All millers aren’t thieves”’. A song from Antwerp of 1544 underscores the degenerated character of the miller: “without any wind, he could grind with his mill… and twice as fast with his girl”. The Dutch comedy The Miller (1618) makes even fun out of the fact that the miller is so drunk that he is, while rejoicing to betray his wife, by error, making love with his own wife!

A 1982 article of the Kroniek van de Kempen says that “from the miller, absolute honesty was expected. However, he often carried the name of swindler and corn thief. He was notably in the position where he could cheat the peasants and the logic was that the occasion made the thief. In the old songs, poems and comedies, the miller often appeared as a seducer, as a man who would ruin couples and as a swindler.”

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Detail from Gluttony, from the series Seven Capital Sins by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1558.

Bruegel himself, in his Gulla (gluttony), a drawing from the series of the Seven Capital Sins, shows a mill in the form of a giant head of a man. Peasants offer him bags of corn which are thrown in his mouth, in this occasion the entrance door of the mill. The mill is nothing but a metaphor of gluttony and financial greed. The mill of course is mounted by an owl, in Flanders and Spain, the symbol of the bad spirit since capable of seeing and operating in the darkness of night. Remember also that Cervantes Don Quixote, a self-brainwashed aristocrat living in the universe of symbolisms, goes at war against windmills he mistakes for evil giants.

To conclude, it has to be noticed that the film seems in search of its own conclusion. While, following the execution of Christ, bold lightning could have wiped out the evil mill, no divine justice comes here to our comfort. Even worse, Bruegel, as a painter supposedly outside these events, is somehow allowed to report for future generations, while life goes on, and just as the mill keeps turning.

Philosophically, this conclusion is absurd. Who could imagine a humanist such as Bruegel, whose associates organized only a couple of years later the revolt of the Netherlands, in 1572, would have accepted the reduced role of being merely a witness of his epoch? Grasping the unavoidable tragic nature and the deliciously comic character of daily life becomes a bad joke when it leads to impotence and renouncement. 


1) Dr Eric de Bruyn, De vergeten beeldentaal van Jheronimus Bosch, Edited by Adr. Heiners, ’s Hertogenbosch 2001.

2) R. L. Falkenburg, Joachim Patinir : Het landschap als beeld van de levenspelgrimage, Nijmegen, 1985 ; Karel Vereycken,  Joachim Patinir et l’invention du paysage en peinture, November 2008.