36. Hendrick Goltzius

Mühlbracht 1558 – 1617 Haarlem

The Blind Leading the Blind, 1586

The parable of the blind leading the blind, told in St Matthew’s gospel, was frequently depicted in the visual arts of the sixteenth century as a metaphor for believers who had strayed from the true path. The world-famous painting of 1568 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526/30-1569) is one of the best-known representations of the subject.1 It depicts a group of blind beggars walking through the Flemish countryside with a church in the background. In order to stay on the path they have a hand on the shoulder of the beggar in front of them or are holding onto a stick. However, the equally blind leader of the group has already tumbled into a ditch, and the others are bound to follow. Like this print by Hendrick Goltzius, the scene is an almost literal translation of Matthew 15:14: “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”

Bruegel’s interpretation of the parable was famous and gave birth to many imitations.2 A series of twelve circular engravings with Bruegelian subjects, some of which bear the monogram of the Antwerp engraver Johannes Wierix (1549-1615/20), was made around the same time.3 One of them depicts the parable of the blind leading the blind, and has an inscription around the edge in which the readers are advised to follow their path through life cautiously and to trust no one but God. The circular format, the inscription and the rendering of the subject match this print by Goltzius. He probably knew the prints and wanted to make a similar series himself.4 However, The Blind Leading the Blind cannot be associated with any other print in Goltzius’s oeuvre.5

Another example on which Goltzius’s scene goes back is a print by Pieter van der Heyden (1520/40-1572/92) in which two blind and rather nasty-looking pilgrims are falling into a ditch.6 Unlike the circular engraving from the series and Bruegel’s painting in Naples, this example, like Goltzius’s print, shows not blind beggars but blind pilgrims, who are recognisable as such by the scallop shells and crossed pilgrim’s staves on their hats. In fact, they are not true pilgrims at all but frauds who are pretending to be devout pilgrims. There were many of them around, according to sixteenth-century sources, and they were sometimes difficult to tell apart from genuine ones. The fake pilgrims used the pilgrimage not to get closer to God but as an excuse for leading a dissipated tramp’s life and swindling naive believers out of money.7 That kind of existence was roundly condemned, and could only end badly, which is the print’s message. The behaviour expected of a true pilgrim is depicted in the background of Goltzius’s print, where two cloaked worshippers have stopped to pray at a wayside altar.8

The Blind Leading the Blind occupies a unique position in Goltzius’s engraved oeuvre. Stylistically it differs drastically from other works of his from the same year, such as the series of Roman heroes dedicated to Emperor Rudolf II (reg. 1576-1612).9 This series was clearly influenced by Bartholomeus Spranger (1546-1611), whose elegant, Mannerist style Goltzius got to know in the early 1580s.10 MR

1Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, inv. no. 84.490 (tempera on canvas; 86 × 156 cm); see Manfred Sellink, Bruegel. The Complete Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Ghent 2007, no. 165, repr. The parable is also depicted in the background of Bruegel’s Proverbs, dated 1559, in Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, inv. no. 1720 (oil on panel; 117.2 × 163.8 cm); see ibid., pp. 128-129, no. 76; and http://www.smb-digital.de/eMuseumPlus.

2On this subject see Klaus Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (1564-1637/38). Die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, 2 vols., Lingen 1988/2000, vol. 1, pp. 83-91; and Jürgen Müller, ‘Of Churches, Heretics, and Other Guides of the Blind: the Fall of the Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the Esthetics of Subversion’, in Walter S. Melion, James Clifton and Michel Weemans (eds.), Imago Exegetica. Visual Images as Exegetical Instruments 1400-1700 (Intersections. Interdisciplinary Studies in Early Modern Culture, vol. 33), Leiden 2014, pp. 737-790.

3Jürgen Müller, Petra Roettig and Bertram Kaschek, Pieter Bruegel invenit. Das druckgraphische Werk, exh. cat., Hamburg (Hamburger Kunsthalle) 2001, pp. 126-131; and Nadine M. Orenstein, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (The New Hollstein Dutch and Flemish Etchings and Engravings and Woodcuts, 1450-1700), Ouderkerk aan de IJssel 2006, pp. 166-173, nos. A7-A18.

4It is also possible that the little The Blind Leading the Blind served as a design for a medallion or miniature.

5Rudolf Weigel suggested a connection with another print by Goltzius. However, this contention was not accepted by Otto Hirschmann; see Walter L. Strauss (ed.), Hendrick Goltzius (The Illustrated Bartsch, vol. 3), New York 1982, p. 86.

6Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. no. RP-P-1885-A-9287 (engraving; 222 × 255 mm); see Müller 2014, op. cit. (note 2), p. 771, fig. 22; and www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/zoeken.

7On the subject of fake pilgrims see Jos Koldeweij, ‘Het zijn niet allen slagers die lange messen dragen. Valse pelgrims en hun herkenningstekens’, Madoc. Tijdschrift over de Middeleeuwen 7 (1993), no. 4, pp. 227-235.

8The same scene is depicted in the background of The Blind Leading the Blind, 1561, by Pieter van der Heyden (after Hans Bol), in Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. no. RP-P-1878-A-1754 (engraving; 218 × 296 mm); see Müller 2014, op. cit. (note 2), p. 778, fig. 25; and https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/zoeken.

9Marjolein Leesberg, Hendrick Goltzius (The New Hollstein Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts, 1450-1700), 4 vols., Ouderkerk aan den IJssel 2012, vol. 1, pp. 272-293, nos. 163-172, reprs.

10Huigen Leeflang and Ger Luijten, Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). Tekeningen, prenten en schilderijen, exh. cat., Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum), New York (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Ohio (The Toledo Museum of Art) 2003-2004, pp. 81-82.