The magpie on the gallows

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The Magpie on the Gallows (Pieter Bruegel the Elder)
The magpie on the gallows
Pieter Bruegel the Elder , 1568
oil on wood
45.9 x 50.8 cm
Hessian State Museum

The magpie on the gallows is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and was probably made in 1568. The 45.9 cm × 50.8 cm oil painting belongs to the collection of the Hessian State Museum in Darmstadt .

The paintings


The eponymous magpie

The viewer looks from above onto a raised forest clearing with gallows and dancing peasants. A bagpiper is playing music, people climb up behind it and in the front left a man relieves himself. A magpie sits on the gallows and a second on the rock next to it. In the right half of the picture in the foreground there is an animal skull, behind it is a cross and further down there is a water mill. Then the view opens into the distance to a winding river, mountains, a castle and a city.


The most striking element is the gallows, which divides the picture into two equal halves. People can only be found in the left half, the magpie on the gallows beam sits exactly in the middle of the picture. The foreground is kept in dark brown tones, the middle ground in green and the distant background in blue tones. The painter thus increases the impression of depth. This is additionally supported by the color density . The two trees in the left half of the picture, seemingly intertwined, are striking, a motif that appears in Bruegel's earlier drawing of a forest landscape with bears playing (1554).


The gallows is a so-called “ impossible figure ”, which in reality cannot exist because the two posts stand next to each other, while the beam with the magpie points from front to back. So obviously there is no danger from this execution device, which is also underlined by the exuberant dancing society. In addition, the man in the lower left corner can be associated with the proverb “shit on the gallows”, that is, with the disregard for death and the authorities.

Political interpretations are common for Bruegel's works. This image is associated with Duke Alba (Álvarez de Toledo), who arrived in the Netherlands in 1567. On behalf of Philip II , as governor-general, he was supposed to put down the religious and political turmoil. In 1566, more than four hundred churches were devastated in a six-day iconoclasm . Accordingly, the gallows would stand for the threatened death penalty by hanging for predicants , the preachers of the new evangelical doctrine. Bruegel's picture The sermon of John the Baptist (1566) alludes to forbidden open-air worship, the so-called hedge sermons .


Usually the picture is dated to the penultimate year of Bruegel's life, mainly because of the date being read as 1568. According to his biographer Carel van Mander , he bequeathed the painting to his wife, with the comment that the magpies represented gossips that he wanted on the gallows. He also had her burn a number of all too satirical drawings so as not to harm his family, which would be a reference to Alba's regime, which was based on denunciation. The small format and the steep, overlooked landscape, however, allow a classification in Bruegel's early work of the 1550s. In his later work he often did without the overview landscape and instead painted rather large-format figures, as in the peasant wedding , the wedding dance outdoors (1566) or the cripples of 1568.

More paintings

Individual evidence

  1. a b Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen - Pieter Bruegel the Elder Ä. around 1525–1569. Farmers, fools and demons , Cologne: Taschen Verlag 1999 p. 81 ISBN 3-8228-6590-7
  2. ^ Christian Vöhringer - Pieter Bruegel. 1525 / 30-1569, Tandem Verlag 2007 p. 83 (hfullmann, imprint) ISBN 978-3-8331-3852-2
  3. ^ Christian Vöhringer - Pieter Bruegel. 1525 / 30-1569 , p. 31

Web links

Commons : The Magpie on the Gallows  - Collection of images, videos and audio files