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Pieter Brueghel, Justice, 1556-1560

Previously I only knew of Brueghel through his paintings of peasant life, winter wonderlands, and golden fields. Although now I realize Brueghel was much more than a peasant painter. He captured not only his moments in history, but also the human condition. Yes, the human condition is not anything new or revolutionary, but the way in which Brueghel tackles it, particularly through his adaptations of proverbs is something quite remarkable. 

For example take his etching of Justice which acts as a part of his Vices and Virtues series painted between 1556-1560. First you might notice a lack of the evenly balanced scale that promotes fairness and equality, a typical tell all for a justice scene. Instead you see elaborate torture devices, the image in the bottom left corner looks like water-boarding right out of Guantanamo Bay. In the background Brueghel replaces images of hope with hangings scenes, floggings and brutal battles. 

Overall print gives off a vibe of distrust, a lack of faith in the systems that supposedly protect us, a fear that has outlasted the wooden spoons kept in 16th century hats. In addition one can separate the image vertically with the woman holding the saber as the splitting point. To her right, one will see buildings that presumably house those responsible for instilling justice. Although by the emphasis of figures with turned backs it may appear that those involved in justice in fact are disinterested in upholding it. As to the left, Brueghel references the madness of justice. The mobs, that pry upon those deemed unfit. He sketches the acts of war and the torture methods used to obtain information. With his shift strokes he captures how the desire of “justice” can in fact cause the opposite in blind destruction. 

Instead of attributing the idea of justice with the high regard it often receives, Brueghel associates it with violence. A thought that certainly rings true today and has throughout history. As we know police brutality and injustice are not new themes. 

Today it is easy to reduce Brueghel to a great painter of everyday life, but we must not forget that with his etchings, paintings, and other works he provided a necessary commentary on his time period. Even in the 16th century, justice served as a sensitive subject, leaving many vulnerable to prejudice and unnecessary violence. 

Justice may not be one of Brueghel's quintessential peasant weddings or winter wonderlands, but it resonates today nonetheless. It makes you think. Here you cannot find comfort in the earthy tones or eccentric characters. You must take note of the circumstances. Begging the question what does justice mean and what does a woman holding a saber have to do with it?

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