The Role of the Proverb in 16th Century Art: Erasmus & Bruegel Video

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  • 00:00 Proverbs
  • 00:38 Proverbs in the 16th Century
  • 2:38 Proverbs and Art
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the history of proverbs in Western culture and discover how they influenced art of the 16th century. We will be looking closely at Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.


'Better late than never.' 'Don't judge a book by its cover.' 'If the boot fits.' The English language is full of these little pearls of wisdom, packaged in clever, quippy, or comical catchphrases. Actually, every language has these socially-relevant metaphors with a moral lesson. We call them proverbs and hey, if you want to give good advice, well, they're a good way to 'put your best foot forward.' But 'don't count your chickens before they hatch,' because 'talk is cheap.' After all, 'a picture's worth a thousand words.' And that's where art comes in handy.

Proverbs in the Sixteenth Century

We love our proverbs, but we're far from the only culture to appreciate them. In the 16th century, proverbs were also an important part of life. Now, European societies had their own proverbs, but people of this time period had been really looking back to the Classical societies of ancient Greece and Rome for knowledge and guidance. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Well, that devotion to Classical knowledge is called Humanism. Humanist scholars wrote their own philosophies but also spent a lot of time translating the works of ancient Rome and Greece to make that knowledge more available to people of the 16th century.

One of the most important of the Humanist scholars was a Dutch priest and intellectual: Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, most often just called Erasmus. Historians call Erasmus 'the Prince of Humanism' because his writings alone accounted for up to 20% of all book sales in Europe. He translated tons of ancient texts, but he didn't 'put all of his eggs into one basket.' As he was translating, he began keeping a list of all the ancient proverbs he came across. Remember, his goal was to make Classical knowledge and wisdom available to people in the 16th century.

In 1500, he published this collection of translated Classical proverbs in a book called the Adagia. The first addition contained 800 proverbs, with such gems as 'One step at a time,' 'Call a spade a spade,' and 'Caught between a rock and a hard place.' By 1508, the Adagia included over 3,000 proverbs. Think he 'bit off more than he could chew'? Nope. By the time of his death in 1536, Erasmus had translated a total of 4,151 proverbs. Most of these we still use today, indicating just how important they became to European society. But Erasmus was just the tip of the iceberg.

Proverbs and Art

Now, Erasmus was a major figure in documenting and spreading the proverbs of the 16th century. But, 'it takes two to tango.' Remember, this lesson is really about art. I just didn't want to 'cross that bridge before we came to it.' The proverbs of the ancient Romans and Greeks mixed with the local proverbs of people in the 16th century to create a culture that was full of catchy metaphors. This was especially true up in Northern Europe, and the intricacies of daily society caught the attention of many artists.

One of the first to begin really focusing on the lives of common people was Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a Netherlandish painter of the 16th century. Bruegel specialized in genre paintings, scenes of daily peasant life, and turned this into a true art form, painting images of northern society that both documented trends of the time and hid a layer of intricate symbolism that criticized social problems.

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