Art Thieves Steal Forged Bruegel Masterpiece, Police Say

Valuable masterpieces of father-and-son Flemish artists

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Italian police switched a famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Younger with a forgery in anticipation of a theft, the BBC reported. Bruegel and his father were both accomplished Flemish artists whose works are worth millions. Study the diverse paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Pieter Bruegel Art Theft

According to the BBC, the painting, The Crucifixion, depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It hung on the wall of the Santa Maria Maddalena church in Castelnuovo Magra, Liguria. Police caught wind of an impending theft and not only installed cameras to catch the thieves but also switched the valuable painting out with a forgery, a month beforehand. When the art thieves entered the alcove in which the painting hung, they smashed its glass case and made off with the forgery while the original remained safely in storage. Pieter Bruegel the Younger learned his artistry from his father, a master artist in his own right who died in 1569. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s work stands on its own and his ideas warrant further study.

Pieter Bruegel – Oil-on-Wood, Hunters in the Snow

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Hunters in the Snow" painting

One of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s best-known works is Hunters in the Snow, which was painted in 1565. As the name implies, it depicts a group of weary hunters and their dogs returning from a long, arduous journey to their snowy village. Yet so much happens in the painting—and it’s portrayed in such animated fashion—that it comes to life before the viewer’s eyes. On the left side of the painting, the hunters’ heads bow down and they step high through a deep snow. Their dogs’ tails are between their legs. Behind them, a large fire roars. Amid trees, a single bird takes flight and draws the eye to the scene below and to the right, as though the audience is one of the hunters returning from the wild and coming to his home village.

“The landscape plunges away from this white foreground of snow to frozen lakes or ponds below,” Professor William Kloss, art historian and scholar, said. “You feel you could take your binoculars and join people down there on the ice—skating, falling, talking, standing all the way through that area.” One villager crosses a bridge, others ice skate, still others stand on a hill. “Life is going on here all the time,” Professor Kloss said. Bruegel has even combined a Netherlandish village with the Swiss Alps in the distant background, rising above the scene. On the whole, it’s a lively and dynamic painting depicting a suspended moment of any winter’s day in a rural area, the character action and natural flow of the image lending to its vibrance.

Oil-on-Panel, Dulle Griet

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Dulle Griet Painting

Bruegel the Elder’s Dulle Griet, painted in the time period of 1562-1564, loosely translates as Mad Meg in English, although the English title ill suits the original Dutch. “Griet is a diminutive of Margaret, and it is a traditional Netherlandish folk name for shrewish or quarrelsome women,” Professor Kloss said. “Dulle means angry or wrathful, not crazy, and that is why ‘Mad’ does not work well in the English.”

The painting itself depicts “Hell”—a decaying city and a fiery red background feature prominently. “On the lower right-hand side, you see women vying with one another for coins that are obligingly produced for them from the behind of [a] large figure in green and pink seated on a roof,” Professor Kloss said. On the far left is a large whale-like creature—apparently Satan himself—with a gaping mouth that welcomes souls.

The subject of the painting—”Mad Meg”—walks across the foreground armed with a sword, helmet, and breastplate. She carries a bag of treasures she’s accumulated. Professor Kloss explains that the clear and dominant theme of the painting is portrayed on Meg’s face, what one historian referred to as “the wild stare of the true fanatic, armed for combat.” Though the entire painting’s meaning is unclear, it strikes the viewer with the intensity, life, and motion for which Bruegel the Elder was known.

As for the theft of the forgery of Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s painting, police are using church surveillance video footage of the robbers to lead to their capture. With luck, they will apprehend them and dissuade future thieves from stealing priceless works of art like Bruegel the Younger’s magnificent painting of Christ’s crucifixion. Both he and his father produced impressive, bold paintings and one can only hope they remain available for future generations to cherish.

Professor William Kloss, M.A.

Professor William Kloss, M.A., contributed to this article. Professor Kloss is an independent art historian and scholar who lectures and writes about a wide range of European and American art. He was educated at Oberlin College, where he earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Art History.