Pieter Bruegel (1525-69, 44) Two Small Monkeys (1562).
What does it “mean”?
Simply the traditional moralistic warning to Man not to become “chained to”, addicted to, sinful behaviours of whatever stripe?
FEATURED.. Pieter Bruegel, Two Monkeys,1562, oil on panel, 23 x 18cm, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
Gentile da Fabriano. (c1370-c1427). 1423, Adoration of the Magi (DETAIL from), tempera on panel, 203 cm × 282 cm, Uffizi, Florence. NOTE. From late in his life, this is the artist’s most famous surviving work, “commissioned by the Florentine literate and patron of the arts Palla Strozzi”.
- No mystery here? Hard to avoid a traditional explanation, ie moralistic subject alluding to the dangers ofirrational or reason challenged man becoming “chained” to, addicted to sinful behaviours.
- Bruegel shows two birds flying freebehind, reminding the tethered beasts what they are missing.
- Possibly he saw chained monkeys in Fabriano’s 1423 Adorationin Italy, and quite likely he saw real such monkeys in busy Antwerp.
- The hazelnuts are important, refer to a local proverb also warning Man not to be irrational, eg to go to court over trivial matters!
- Left wing Marxist explanations, suggesting Bruegel is taking aim at Antwerp’s successful new wealthy bourgeois class seem nonsense. They paid his bills. Also this new private market-based economy has since brought unparalleled material prosperity to about 1/3 of the global headcount.
This unusual, intriguing later painting – small (only 9 x 7in.) and showing an intimate, simple scene – is very different to four important panels also completed in the same busy year, 1562, by the then well established and experienced Bruegel (age c37). All four of the major works presented serious subjects depicted in typical detailed crowded compositions: The Suicide of Saul, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Triumph of Death and Dulle Griet (Mad Meg).
So the painting of the monkeys may have provided light relief for the artist.
Bruegel’s rendition shows the monkeys chained on a window sill, by pieces of broken hazelnut shell, views behind to Antwerp, which Bruegel knew well, where he lived c1551-1563.
According to Google the two monkeys are identified as collared mangabeys (genus ceropithecidae), native to the west coast of Africa. Presumably Bruegel may have seen this species of monkey at the important trading centre that was Antwerp then, particularly given his apparently accurate rendition of the species markings.
Bruegel’s painting – an interpretation
Bruegel was always serious polemical painter. In the footsteps of Bosch – though now much less militantly evangelical, now more humanised – every image carried a message or story of some kind.
So here it’s hard here to avoid a traditional explanation for showing monkeys and monkeys chained, ie alluding to irrational or reason challenged man being “chained to”, addicted to sinful behaviour.
In the sky behind Bruegel shows two birds flying free, reminding the tethered beasts what they are missing.
Yes it’s possible he recalled seeing the pair of chained monkeys in the grand Fabriano painting in Italy about 15 years previously. And also it’s quite likely he saw real monkeys in Antwerp, which given his observant eye he would have noticed.
As many have remarked the hazelnuts are important, given his then recent famous 1559 painting illustrating a collection of Netherlands proverbs. So there seems little doubt the nuts refer to the local proverb warning Man not to be irrational, eg not to go to court over trivial matters! Good advice. Only the lawyers win.
The reason for showing Antwerp?
The obvious explanation for Antwerp appearing is that it was Bruegel’s base for many years (c1551-1563, except for for near 2 years to Italy) where he lived and worked, and prospered. And it was a town then riding a wave of prosperity based on trade, facilitated by its strategic location, its port facilities on the Schelde River, by the Channel and not far south of the mouth of the Rhine, its population roughly doubling between 1500 and 1568.
This prosperity, however, would shortly be severely dented as Spain’s war with the rebel Dutch Republic took hold (the 80 Years War, 1568-1648).
There is the Left wing Marxist explanation (refer below), that Bruegel is taking aim at Antwerp’s successful new economy, at the new wealthy bourgeois class, people like the merchant Nicolaes Jongelinck who importantly patronised the artist, buying at least 16 of his paintings, until they were forfeited as collateral for debt and ended up in the collection of the Hapsburg Rudolf II, HRE, thence Vienna today.
Indeed Bruegel’s interest in the Tower of Babel as a subject (which he painted twice in 1563) can also be read as frowning on Man’s ambitious material objectives, his arrogance, his unrestrained too big for his boots commercial ambition.
But this take seems far fetched here, drawing a long bow, when the traditional symbolic reference works well?
Also this new money paid his bills.
It’s worth noting this new private market-based economy has since, finally, brought unparalleled material prosperity to about 1/3 of the global population.
Monkeys in art
Monkeys have traditionally been popular in art mainly to symbolise ill disciplined Man abandoning Reason, measured prudent behavior, and succumbing to base animal desires, and popular particularly because there is an obvious close resemblance between humans and apes, which Darwin later explained.
And the monkeys being chained? This almost certainly alludes to “fallen” sinful humans being trapped by, “chained to”, their improper desires, lusts, ignoble appetites, which thus in turn can be styled as addictions, because they are difficult to resist.
Monkeys appeared in many illustrated manuscripts in Medieval Europe, perhaps for iconographical reasons, but perhaps also simply for fun, as exotic quasi-human animals.
Monkeys were popular especially in art in the United Provinces (the Dutch Republic) in the 17th C where, in a subset called singerie, monkeys often appeared dressed like humans, engaged in human activities showing immoral or dissolute or disreputable “sub-human” behaviour, like playing cards (gambling), smoking and drinking, selling tobacco, or even the tulip mania (also gambling?).
This was also an allusion to the Great Chain of Being (L. scala naturae, “Ladder of Being”), popular in the Middle Ages, eg through Aquinas, and sourced from the old Greeks (Plato and Aristotle etc), being a ranking or hierarchy of the natural order, animals, plants and rocks, from rocks bottom to animal higher up then God at the top. Thus monkeys ranked below humans, as creatures that were “sentient”, meaning all they could do was feel or sense, and did not possess the faculty of reason, a capacity to reflect on their condition and manage, restrain appetites and behaviours.
Singeries stayed popular in the early 18th C in France, and 19th C.
What does Two monkeys “mean”? Some ideas.
A BBC writer (5th Oct. 2018) suggests the idea of pair of chained monkeys may come from an important painting by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), his lush, extravagant, crowded The Adoration of the Magi (1423), an example par excellence of the reactionary International Gothic style, which work Bruegel may have seen in Florence during his Italian visit, 1552-54, ie about 8 years earlier, in his late 20s.
There the monkeys are chained near a pomegranate tree bearing bursting ripe fruit. In Fabriano’s painting the meaning of the monkeys relates to Christian iconography? The monkeys can represent fallen Man’s base condition, in Paradise Garden, ie Man prone to, lusting after, base desires, including of the flesh, desires metaphorically represented by the ripe fruit.
Meanwhile salvation now beckons through the Christ child shown left, where the Magi arrive to present themselves.
The BBC writer suggests the monkeys become “an emblem of humility… [and] all that stands between us and the splendours of the world we inhabit are the fetters we clamp on ourselves and on each other…” Whatever that means?!
Perhaps more usefully another blogger, Angela, looks to the hazelnuts, which allude to a Netherlands proverb, “to go to court for the sake of a hazelnut”, noted by other observers. Thus for Angela the nuts can symbolise addiction, “people will do anything to obtain their desires, no matter how small”. Thus the sad monkeys are trapped by their lust for nuts! In the arched window which is their prison.
Gerry in Art (2015) notes Antwerp in the background, then booming commercially, then posits a textbook Marxist explanation, claims Bruegel is basically mauling the new quasi-capitalist economic system, no beating about the bush, “one founded upon exploitation and inhumanity, and the enslavement of human beings by their fellow-men…the chains on the monkeys represent the suffering brought about by contempt for the dignity of fellow human beings.”
Nonsense. He’s dreaming. Look about you today.
But he does usefully mention “Nobel prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote a verse entitled Bruegel’s Two Monkeys”, published June 1957, a year after the Poznan riots. Thus the chained monkeys become obvious symbols for a “chained” people.