Two Chained Monkeys (1562)

Bruegel the Elder, Pieter (c.1525-1569)

Two Chained Monkeys
Oil on oak panel, 19.9 x 23.3 cm

SHELFMARK / INSCRIPTION: Inscription lower left: • BRVEGEL • MDLXII •

This unusual picture dates from the year 1562, shortly before Bruegel relocated from Antwerp to Brussels. Depicted is a pair of monkeys, both chained to an iron ring and sitting in the opening of an arched window. The heavy chains, the massive masonry, and the low arch of the window strengthen an impression of confinement, from which there is apparently no possibility of escape. With great sensitivity and empathy, Bruegel has characterised the attitudes and expressions of the monkeys, which seem to have been deprived of their liveliness by their imprisonment. There is a powerful contrast between the constriction of the dungeon-like niche and the view through the window. Recognisable is the town of Antwerp with its harbour, and the tall, looming tower of the “Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk” (Church of our Lady). Before the town, the broad stream of the Scheldt River leads into the distance, where water and sky merge. The contrast between the oppressive closeness of the shadowy wall opening and the bright expense of the landscape, with its birds flying in the sky and its ships, which herald journeys to distant lands, allows the holder to empathise all the more strongly with the captive condition of these creatures.

Among the stimuli Bruegel drew upon for this painting may have been an engraving entitled Four Monkeys by Israhel van Meckenem and Dürer‘s Madonna with the Monkey. Of even greater significance, however, must have been studies after nature. The monkeys depicted by Bruegel were Collared or Red-capped Mangabeys (Cercocebus torquatus), whose area of distribution ranges from Cape Verde in West Africa to the Lower Congo. Bruegel‘s masterful depiction of these animals was based on the precise observation from life. It can hardly be supposed however that he attempted here to produce a mere animal study. Questionable as well is the degree to which this little picture can be related to the artist’s life circumstances, his imminent relocation to Brussels, or his marriage and concomitant loss of independence. On the other hand, it is conceivable that this picture was intended for a friend the artist left behind in Antwerp.

Concerning this image’s symbolic or allegorical significance, the monkey was an emblem of the individual who is chained to his desires, a prisoner to animalistic cravings. With the image of the chained monkeys, evidently, Bruegel sought to allude allegorically to deluded people who were prepared – as implied by the broken nuts lying next to the animals – to sacrifice their freedom for a gain of dubious value. The captivity of these animals in Bruegel‘s picture can be interpreted as a paraphrase of people who exist in bestial enslavement, who are not guided by Christian virtue, and can therefore look forward to a pitiful end. Bruegel would not, however, have been the moralist we recognise in so many of his pictures if he had been content to merely depict a situation that is conceived as irrevocable. In this painting, the chains are emblems of a desperate situation. And a precise examination of that situation reveals that there is in fact a way out. As it happens, the chains terminate in a toggle, which has been inserted into a ring. If the toggle is retracted and brought into a vertical position, it can be forced back through the ring, disengaging the connection. Having surrendered to their gloomy fate, the two monkeys never arrive at the awareness that they can liberate themselves. They are incapable of meaningfully employing the gifts with which nature has endowed them in order to rescue themselves. Much the same is true of people who, lacking sufficient insight, remain their own prisoners. Bruegel‘s message, then, is that only the individual’s self-reflection is capable of leading him onto the right path. A life that is conducted with wisdom and modesty will enable him to shake off his self-imposed imprisonment, to free himself from spiritual bondage. This is the same fundamentally ethical and rationalistic ethic we encounter in exemplary form in the humanistic writings of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert. It is an expression of the moral philosophy that is materialised in many of profound allegories of Pieter Bruegel – who was referred to with striking superficiality by later generations as “Peasant Bruegel“. (Gemäldegalerie)

See also:

Antwerp (Belgium)