Discover Bruegel’s ground-breaking landscapes in real life at open-air museum
In 2019, Belgium recognised the 450th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest painters who ever lived, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. An entire year of exhibitions and special events was devoted to the man who embraced the first post-religious period of painting with vast landscapes featuring hundreds of townspeople – and sometimes a demon or two.
While little biographical information still exists on Bruegel, it is well known that he lived the last half of his 40-ish years in Antwerp and later Brussels, where he is buried. It is also known where he sought the landscapes he used in his most famous works: Flemish Brabant.
The countryside around Brussels would become the inspiration for such masterpieces as ‘The Hunters in the Snow’ and ‘The Harvesters’, set in rural areas outside villages that still exist today. The Pajottenland area west and southwest of Brussels was an especially rich source of imagery, with its farmlands, rolling hills, dense forests and charming village churches.
While Brussels has gotten a lot bigger and forests rather smaller, visitors can still see much in Pajottenland that Bruegel saw in the 16th century. That’s why the municipality of Dilbeek established the Bruegel Open-Air Museum, a trail of 19 placards depicting Bruegel works. In each one, elements of the painting can still be seen in the landscape.
Bruegel was the number one artist in the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance and a pioneer in landscape painting, so it’s pretty wondrous to be able to gaze on a church tower or a mill that looks exactly as it did 450 years ago.
He was also one of the first painters to create works centred on the common people, whether they are begging or ice skating. And he is famous for depicting low countries’ folklore in vast scenes with dozens – or hundreds – of figures in them. Often the figures are very small, but they are incredibly detailed. The Bruegel Open-Air Museum offers up a real-life visual of these scenes that really spark the imagination.
There are a couple of ways to experience this trail of art and history: one a walk and another a cycle route. The good news for Brussels residents is that both of them begin in Dilbeek, right on Brussels’ doorstep.
They both start at the church in Itterbeek, a district of Dilbeek, a few kilometres west of Anderlecht. (De Lijn bus 118 runs from South Station and stops right in front of the church, taking in many Anderlecht stops along the way).
The 7-kilometre walk takes in 11 of the Bruegel panels, this part of what is now Dilbeek having provided a wealth of visual stimuli for the painter. The bike ride includes the rest of the eight panels and circles south through Gaasbeek and Sint-Pieters-Leeuw.
Both offer great opportunities for additional sight-seeing, with the walk taking in Sint-Pieters church, the tower of which dates from the 13th century, a bit of woodland and fruit orchards. The 45-kilometre cycle route puts you in view of many old country churches, as well as castles and watermills. Since Bruegel painted scenes from every season, the walk and cycle route also work well in the months to come, with some panels showing autumn colours and others winter’s ice.
Photo top ©Lander Loeckx