Netherlandish Proverbs

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search
Netherlandish Proverbs
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559
117 cm × 163 cm (46 in × 64 in)
Staatliche Museen, Berlin Flag of Germany

Netherlandish Proverbs (also called The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World) is a 1559 oil-on-oak-panel painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder which depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish proverbs of the day. The picture is overflowing with references and most of the representations can still be identified; while many of the proverbs have either been forgotten or never made the transition to the English language, some are still in use. Proverbs were popular during Bruegel's time: a number of collections were published including a famous work by Erasmus. Frans Hogenberg had produced an engraving illustrating about 40 proverbs in around 1558 and Bruegel himself had painted a collection of Twelve Proverbs on individual panels by 1558 and had also produced Big Fish Eat Little Fish in 1556, but Netherlandish Proverbs is thought to be the first large scale painting on the theme. Rabelais depicted a land of proverbs in his novel Pantagruel soon after in 1564.

Bruegel's paintings have themes of the absurdity, wickedness and foolishness of mankind, and this painting is no exception. The picture was originally entitled The Blue Cloak or The Folly of the World which indicates he was not intending to produce a mere collection of proverbs but rather a study of human stupidity. Many of the people depicted show the characteristic blank features which Bruegel used to portray fools. His son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, specialised in making copies of his father's work, and painted up to twenty copies of Netherlandish Proverbs. Not all versions of the painting, by father or son, show exactly the same proverbs, also differing in other details.


[edit] Detail

There are around 100 identifiable idioms in the scene (although Bruegel may have included others). Some are still in use today, amongst them: "swimming against the tide", "big fish eat little fish", "banging one's head against a brick wall" and "armed to the teeth", and there are some that are familiar if not identical to the modern English usage, such as "casting roses before swine". Many more have faded from use or have never been used in English, "having one's roof tiled with tarts" for example which meant to have an abundance of everything and was an image Bruegel would later feature in his painting of the idyllic Land of Cockaigne. The Blue Cloak referred to in the painting's original title is being placed on the man in the centre of the picture by his wife. This was indicative that she was cheating on him. Other proverbs indicate mankind's foolishness: a man fills in a pond after his calf has died, just above the central figure of the blue-cloaked man another man carries daylight in a basket. Some of the figures seem to represent more than one figure of speech (whether this was Bruegel's intention or not is unknown), such as the man shearing a sheep in the centre bottom left of the picture. He is sat next to a man shearing a pig, so represents the expression "one shears sheep and one shears pigs" meaning that one has the advantage over the other, but he may also represent the advice "shear them but don't skin them" meaning make the most of your assets.

Expressions featured in the painting[1]
Proverb Meaning Location
To even be able to tie the devil to a pillow Obstinacy overcomes everything
To be a pillar-biter To be a religious hypocrite
To carry fire in one hand and water in the other To be two-faced and to stir up trouble
To bang one's head against a brick wall To try to achieve the impossible
One foot shod, the other bare Balance is paramount
The sow pulls the bung Negligence will be rewarded with disaster
To bell the cat To be indiscreet about plans that should be secret
To be armed to the teeth To be heavily armed
To be an iron-biter To be boastful/ indiscreet
One shears sheep, the other shears pigs One has all the advantages, the other none
Shear them but do not skin them Do not press your advantage too far
The herring does not fry here Things do not go according to plan Image:NP-15.jpg
To fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe To do too much to achieve a little Image:NP-15.jpg
To get the lid on the head To end up taking responsibility Image:NP-16.jpg
The herring hangs by its own gills You must accept responsibility for your own actions Image:NP-17.jpg
There is more in it than an empty herring There is more to it than meets the eye Image:NP-17.jpg
What can smoke do to iron? There is no point in trying to change the unchangeable
To find the dog in the pot To arrive too late to prevent trouble [2]
To sit between two stools in the ashes To be indecisive
To be a hen feeler To count one's chickens before they hatch
The scissors hang out there They are liable to cheat you there Image:NP-10.jpg
To always gnaw on a single bone To continually talk about the same subject
It depends on the fall of the cards It is up to chance Image:NP-13.jpg
The world is turned upside down Everything is the opposite of what it should be Image:NP-14.jpg
Leave at least one egg in the nest Always have something in reserve Image:NP-12.jpg
To shit on the world To despise everything
To lead each other by the nose To fool each other Image:NP-21.jpg
The die is cast The decision is made Image:NP-90.jpg
Fools get the best cards Luck can overcome intelligence
To look through one's fingers To be indulgent Image:NP-22.jpg
There hangs the knife To issue a challenge Image:NP-23.jpg
There stand the wooden shoes To wait in vain Image:NP-24.jpg
To stick out the broom To have fun while the master is away Image:NP-25.jpg
To marry under the broomstick To live together without marrying Image:NP-26.jpg
To have the roof tiled with tarts To be living in the lap of luxury
To have a hole in one's roof To be simple Image:NP-104.jpg
An old roof needs a lot of patching up Old things need more maintenance Image:NP-105.jpg
The roof has lathes There could be eavesdroppers (The walls have ears)
To have toothache behind the ears To be a malingerer
To be pissing against the moon To waste one's time on a futile endeavour
Here hangs the pot It is the opposite of what it should be Image:NP-106.jpg
To shoot a second bolt to find the first To repeat a foolish action
To shave the fool without lather To trick somebody Image:NP-30.jpg
Two fools under one hood Stupidity loves company Image:NP-34.jpg
It grows out of the window It cannot be concealed Image:NP-33.jpg
To play on the pillory To attract attention to one's shameful acts Image:NP-31.jpg
Where the gate is open the pigs will run into the corn Disaster ensues from carelessness Image:NP-40.jpg
Where the corn decreases the pig increases If one person gains then another must lose Image:NP-40.jpg
To run like one's backside is on fire To be in great distress Image:NP-94.jpg
He who eats fire, shits sparks Do not be surprised at the outcome if you attempt a dangerous venture Image:NP-94.jpg
To hang one's cloak according to the wind To adapt one's viewpoint to the current opinion Image:NP-39.jpg
To toss feathers in the wind To work fruitlessly Image:NP-42.jpg
To gaze at the stork To waste one's time Image:NP-38.jpg
To want to kill two flies with one stroke To be efficient (equivalent to today's To kill two birds with one stone) Image:NP-43.jpg
To fall from the ox onto the ass To fall on hard times
To kiss the ring of the door To be insincere Image:NP-37.jpg
To wipe one's backside on the door To treat something lightly Image:NP-36.jpg
To go around shouldering a burden To imagine that things are worse than they are Image:NP-36.jpg
One beggar pities the other standing in front of the door NP-91.jpg
To fish behind the net To miss an opportunity Image:NP-47.jpg
Big fish eat little fish Image:NP-48.jpg
To be unable to see the sun shine on the water To be jealous of another's success Image:NP-60.jpg
It hangs like a privy over a ditch It is obvious
Anybody can see through an oak plank if there is a hole in it There is no point in stating the obvious Image:NP-45.jpg
They both shit through the same hole They are in agreement Image:NP-46.jpg
To throw one's money into the water To waste one's money Image:NP-61.jpg
A wall with cracks will soon collapse Anything poorly managed will soon fail Image:NP-93.jpg
To not care whose house is on fire as long as one can warm oneself at the blaze To take every opportunity regardless of the consequences to others Image:NP-44.jpg
To drag the block To be deceived by a lover or to work at a pointless task Image:NP-50.jpg
Fear makes the old woman trot An unexpected event can reveal unknown qualities Image:NP-49.jpg
Horse droppings are not figs Do not be fooled by appearances Image:NP-53.jpg
If the blind lead the blind both will fall in the ditch There is no point in being guided by others who are equally ignorant Image:NP-51.jpg
The journey is not yet over when one can discern the church and steeple Do not give up until the task is fully complete Image:NP-52.jpg
Everything, however finely spun, finally comes to the sun Nothing can be hidden forever
To keep one's eye on the sail To stay alert, be wary Image:NP-54.jpg
To shit on the gallows To be undeterred by any penalty Image:NP-55.jpg
Where the carcass is, there fly the crows If the evidence points to something it is likely to be true Image:NP-113.jpg
It is easy to sail before the wind If conditions are favourable it is not difficult to achieve one's goal Image:NP-54.jpg
Who knows why geese go barefoot? There is a reason for everything, though it may not be obvious Image:NP-56.jpg
If I am not meant to be their keeper, I will let geese be geese Do not interfere in matters that are not your concern Image:NP-56.jpg
To see bears dancing[3] To be starving
Wild bears prefer each other's company[3] Peers get along better with each other than with outsiders
To throw one's cowl over the fence To discard something without knowing whether it will be required later Image:NP-66.jpg
It is ill to swim against the stream It is difficult to oppose the general opinion Image:NP-65.jpg
The pitcher goes to the water until it finally breaks Everything has its limitations NP-95.jpg
The best straps are cut from somebody else's leather Men cut the largest straps from other men's leather/It is easy to take from others work. Image:NP-67.jpg
To hold an eel by the tail To undertake a difficult task
To fall through the basket To be rejected
To be suspended between heaven and earth To be in an awkward situation
To take the hen's egg and let the goose's egg go To make a bad decision
To yawn against the oven To attempt more than one can manage
To be barely able to reach from one loaf to another To have difficulty living within budget
A hoe without a handle Probably something useless[4] Image:NP-96.jpg
To look for the hatchet To try to find an excuse
Here he is with his lantern To finally have an opportunity to show a talent
A hatchet with a handle Probably signifies "the whole thing"[4]
He who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again Once something is done it cannot be undone
To put a spoke in someone's wheel To put up an obstacle, to destroy someone's plans
Love is on the side where the money bag hangs Love can be bought
To pull to get the longest end To attempt to get the advantage
To stand in one's own light To be proud of oneself
No one looks for others in the oven who has not been in there himself To imagine wickedness in others is a sign of wickedness in oneself
To have the world spinning on one's thumb To have every advantage
To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ To hide deceit under a veneer of Christian piety
To have to stoop to get on in the world To succeed one must be devious
To cast roses before swine To waste effort on the unworthy
To fill the well after the calf has drowned To take action only after a disaster
To be as patient as a lamb To be very patient
She puts the blue cloak on her husband She deceives him
Watch out that a black dog does not come in between When two women are together a barking dog is not needed to add to the trouble they will cause
One winds on the distaff what the other spins Both spread gossip
To carry the day out in baskets To waste one's time
To hold a candle to the Devil To flatter and make friends indiscriminately Image:NP-80.jpg
To confess to the Devil To reveal secrets to one's enemy
The pig is stabbed through the belly A foregone conclusion or what is done can not be undone
Two dogs over one bone seldom agree To argue over a single point Image:NP-82.jpg
To be a skimming ladle To be a parasite or sponger Image:NP-102.jpg
What is the good of a beautiful plate when there is nothing on it? Beauty does not make up for substance Image:NP-99.jpg
The fox and the crane entertain each other Two deceivers always keep their own advantage in mind[5] Image:NP-87.jpg
To blow in the ear To spread gossip Image:NP-114.jpg
To chalk up To make sure to remember Image:NP-100.jpg
The meat on the spit must be basted Certain things need constant attention
There is no turning the spit with him He is uncooperative Image:NP-115.jpg
To sit on hot coals To be impatient Image:NP-88.jpg
To catch fish without a net To profit from the work of others

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ From a list detailing the proverbs and meanings published by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and reproduced in Hagen pp.36-7.
  2. ^ The dirt on the painting makes it almost impossible to make out the dog here.
  3. ^ a b The exact proverb depicted is not known with certainty.
  4. ^ a b The exact meaning of the proverb is not known.
  5. ^ This is a reference to one of Aesop's Fables.

[edit] References

[edit] See also

  • Fleet Foxes (2008) - album features the painting on the cover art
Personal tools