Pieter Breughel the Younger, “A Compassionate Wife”

The peasant couple we see in the painting is happy – both, husband and wife have a soft and harmonious facial expressions. Life together hasn’t made them impatient or irritable with one another. And their subjective truths – feelings each might have regarding any situations involving the two of them aren’t identical – each obviously has her or his own perspective and at the same time are tolerant of disagreements between themselves. The wife compassionately and tenderly looks at the hen, which the husband has fetched for their family dinner, and the husband looks compassionately (although not without some humor) at his wife’s compassion. He understands what she is feeling – “how great it would be if they could just live with the dinner-bird in peace and friendship”, but their children need to eat. He knows what she is thinking and he likes that she thinks the way she does. It looks that the bird soon will be eaten by the happy family commune.

Look again at the peasant woman’s gaze at the bird, look at her hand caressing the bird’s head. And look at the husband’s hands – hasn’t he brought the doomed bird to his wife as a baby in need of mother’s touch and care? And the maternal smile of the wife doesn’t look anxious by the bird’s impending destiny. Her husband’s face communicates his affection for his wife who always a little sad when the time comes to kill god‘s-creature for the family meal. Still, look at his nose, not only red but swollen – we can bet that the man will be enjoying the taste of the chicken dish so much that it won’t be a place for melancholy at the dinner table. The husband is so touchingly patient, he will give his wife time to say good bye to the bird who was a member of the family… for a while and will be focus of collective memory until… next dinner. Compassion softens the cruelty without which life in the rural settlement couldn’t be possible. But so what that the exemplary kindness of our spouses has realistic limits! Survival is the first priority of life, nevertheless the ability for compassion is like a soft pillow for the peasant head which needs a dense restful sleep.

The both spouses are in tune, they’re co-experiencing, co-feeling their togetherness, not only with each other, but with life, and this is a feature of tolerance and softness of traditional country life, when nobody was selling tones of cattle or dreaming about luxurious existence yet. Bless the love of the traditional peasants for one another and for their domestic animals, and for sacred soil pregnant with food, and this paradise of produce will be interrupted only by the peasants’ king with his animalistic scream-call to fight with another monarch for “our” glory and more land. The blood will fertilize the soil. And eventually even peasants will start to think with techno-scientific ambitions – they become agro-industrial-farmers, invent machines and new forms of weaponry. Civilization – as a white horse will rise on its hind legs.

*We are not sure about the real title of this painting by Pieter Breughel-the younger. It can be a fragment of the bigger painting. We will be very glad if someone among the readers will be able to clear the origin of this painting. But it is beyond the doubts that the artistic aptitude of the painter to simultaneously appreciate human nature and humorously criticize it stays stronger with each century.