Bruegel’s "Peasant Wedding" Celebrates the True Purpose of Marriage
By Ruth Oron
As women think about and plan their upcoming weddings, what do they most need to know? It is what I learned from Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by the American poet and critic, Eli Siegel: that the purpose of marriage, like the purpose of life itself, is to like the world. In "Love and Reality," a chapter of his definitive book Self and World, Eli Siegel wrote: "The purpose of love is to feel closely one with things as a whole." A woman, I have learned, is hoping "to feel closely one with" and respect the whole world including other people, books, ideas, justice, through knowing and caring for one particular representative of that world, a man. But, Aesthetic Realism so importantly explains too that a woman has another hope, to use the man she is close to, to have contempt for the world, to make its meaning less so she can feel important. The way to honestly like the world and oppose contempt, Aesthetic Realism teaches, is to see that the world has a structure that is beautiful — the aesthetic oneness of opposites. "All beauty is a making one of opposites," stated Eli Siegel in a landmark principle, "and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." And he showed greatly and kindly that we can learn about our deepest hopes and most pressing concerns from theart of the world.
In this article I am happy to show how the painting "Peasant Wedding" by the important 16th century Flemish painter, Peter Bruegel, celebrates in its technique the true purpose of marriage and is a thoroughly practical guide for every bride-to-be. (See picture below.) Crucial in every marriage, as in every painting I learned, are the opposites of sameness and difference — we marry someone who stands for the difference of the world, and for the good of our marriage and our lives, we have to see that difference as something to know and be fair to.
In "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" Eli Siegel asks about Sameness and Difference: "Does every work of art show the kinship to be found in objects and all realities? — and at the same time the subtle and tremendous difference, the drama of otherness, that one can find among the things of the world?"
When a woman imagines a possible husband, there is often a tendency to dream of a man who, while being obviously different from herself, will nevertheless share her interests, agree with her opinions, and tell her how wise and right she is about everything. As a person who was born in Israel, one of the things that attracted me to my husband was his difference — he was from another country, Morocco, spoke French, Spanish, Arabic and was learning Hebrew, and had much experience in the world, outside the rather sheltered kibbutz I grew up in. But I didn't respect the meaning of his difference sufficiently and deeply I didn’t welcome it. Soon after we were married, I tried to erase all signs of difference between us. I remember telling my friends what really wasn't true — "How wonderful it is — we agree about everything." But I was missing the real pleasure, the real romance of seeing the thrilling relation of sameness and difference between myself and another person, and this was a cause of pain in our marriage.
One of the things I love about Bruegel's "Peasant Wedding" is the way he shows what Eli Siegel describes as the "kinship to be found in objects and all realities" and simultaneously "the drama of otherness." We see over forty people together in the same room, most of them seated around one long table. Bruegel shows their kinship through colors, shapes and directions, and he shows them enjoying dishes of food and jugs of beer as part of the same lively celebration. Yet, Bruegel valued each individual in all his uniqueness.
Let us look at some of the people at this feast. In the foreground we see two men carrying between them a rectangular wooden door being used as a large tray to serve the food. Right away we see sameness and difference working together for one purpose. One man is wearing a red jacket and a green hat. The other man is wearing a red hat and a greenish jacket — sameness and difference. They are the same height, and going in the same direction for the same reason. Yet we feel each one of them was respected as an individual by Bruegel. And as we look at them there is a pleasing sense of differences helping each other, for the good of all. We see them even before we see the bride. She is the girl seated in front of the dark green rectangular cloth of honor. At first, when I looked at her, I thought she was in herself and complacent. She reminded me of myself. When I got married, I thought now that I had a husband I didn't need anyone else. But as I looked more closely I saw that she is both set apart and in the midst. She is seated in what I have learned is the traditional posture of modesty for bridal portraits. She looks warmly contained within herself, and at the same time she seems pleased with the bustling activity around her. And Bruegel shows she is related to everything and everyone.
Her garments and flesh contain all the colors in this painting. The red of her cheeks and her crowning headband, adorned with tiny peacock feathers, is like the red of the jackets and caps around her. The deep brown of her gown is in the men's soft shoes, coats and hats, and in the eaves of the barn. The green she is wearing can be found in the apron of the child on the floor — who also wears a peacock feather, a big one. And this green is in the leaves seen through the open door on the upper left. The rectangular opening of this doorway with its green trees, is something like the rectangle of green before which the bride sits. This open door is the furthest thing from us in the painting, but it is essential to the composition. I feel it is a beautiful criticism of what I have learned is one of the worst mistakes a man and woman can make with each other — to use their closeness, their "kinship" to shut the world out.
In Aesthetic Realism consultations I heard this: "When a woman feels she isn't fair to the outside world, no amount of love is going to satisfy her. She's going to keep feeling always that someone doesn't love her — even if he's knocking at her door, sending flowers, calling on the telephone 24 hours a day." If a woman doesn't feel she is fair to things and people, she can't believe the love shown to her by a particular man. See how, in this painting, Bruegel has not one man knocking at the door, but the whole village streaming in from the outside through this doorway in an energetic diagonal line going across the painting. (To see painting again, click here.) It is the hustle and bustle of reality a bride must welcome in order for her to care for one person. Even though the opening in the doorway is confined to such a small space, the view of the outside world seen through the open door — the greenery and sky — adds space, depth and perspective. If you cover up this little view, the whole painting gets claustrophobic. When a couple creates a separate world for themselves, they get claustrophobic too. Every couple needs to ask: Do I use the man or woman close to me to care for the world or be against it?
Bruegel's bride is seated in the midst of the gathering. But where is the groom?
That is the mystery of this painting; it has been asked by critics these 400 years. Walter Gibson writes: "Unlike the bride, the groom cannot be readily distinguished, and writers have exercised considerable ingenuity in explaining his supposed absence."
Several men have been proposed as candidates — the man on the left pouring out beer, or one of the other men serving the food, in keeping with the custom of the time where the husband was supposed to wait upon the wife's family during the banquet. But why didn't Bruegel make his particular identity unmistakable?
Addressing this question in a seminar presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, Aesthetic Realism consultant and artist Dorothy Koppelman said:
- "The world," Eli Siegel [explains], "is the third partner" necessary in any marriage. Bruegel's 'Peasant Wedding' is an exemplification of the Aesthetic Realism idea."
And she said, "The Bruegel 'Peasant Wedding' is the wedding of a person to the world." I believe this is true. And seeing it thrilled me. In one of my first Aesthetic Realism consultations I learned the reason my marriage had ended. My consultants said to me:
You thought you could love a person but you didn't love the world. You didn't feel the way you saw a person depended on the way you saw the world.
I am so glad to have learned this. It made me feel hopeful about love and marriage in a way I never felt before. It is thought Bruegel himself is the man in black with the red beard seated at the far right on an upturned washtub, engaged in conversation with a monk. This intimate, serious conversation between two people is balanced in the composition by the crowd of people streaming in at the door. I think Bruegel's message is: in order to have the true intimacy and depth of feeling people hope for in marriage, the world in all its variety must be welcomed. I love this painting and I see it as a visual affirmation of what Eli Siegel explains in his lecture "The Furious Aesthetics of Marriage":
- You cannot love a person, whether that person is called Ned or Edwina, is called Winnie or Jimmy, is called Edgar or Frieda — you cannot love a person unless you want to love the world, as a large and unlimited fact.... Our purpose, our most constant purpose, the purpose of purposes, and the purpose of purposes of purposes is: To like the world on an exact basis, which is also beautiful.