“The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day,” a masterpiece by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, is a significant work in the history of art, both for its size and its complex depiction of peasant life. Created between 1565 and 1568, this large-format painting is renowned as the largest known work by Bruegel and is currently housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. The painting was identified as an original Bruegel in 2010, marking a major discovery for art historians.
The canvas vividly portrays the festivities of Saint Martin’s Day, celebrated on November 11th, which coincides with the end of the grape harvest and the sampling of the new wine, known as Saint Martin’s wine. This day was traditionally marked by the consumption of “Saint Martin’s Goose” and was associated with the free distribution of wine to country folk outside city gates. Bruegel’s work captures the irony between the charity of Saint Martin, who is depicted sharing his cloak with a beggar, and the excesses of the feast named after him.
In the painting, the central focus is a massive barrel of wine, around which a diverse crowd of characters—men, women, children, peasants, beggars, and thieves—jostle to fill their containers with the coveted beverage. Bruegel masterfully arranges these figures to create a “mountain of humanity” driven by gluttony, reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. The composition contrasts the chaotic central group with the more stable, charitable act of Saint Martin on one side, while on the other side, the consequences of overindulgence are depicted through figures suffering from the effects of too much wine.
Bruegel’s critical perspective on peasant life, drinkers, and beggars reflects the attitudes of his time, particularly during the Reformation, which he supported. The painting also echoes Erasmus’ satires on saints’ feast days, where gluttony is portrayed as a capital sin. Stylistically, the work is linked to Bruegel’s other pieces executed in glue-size tempera on linen, a medium that presents conservation challenges but has allowed some of his works, like “The Blind Leading the Blind,” to survive in relatively good condition.
The discovery of “The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day” adds to the oeuvre of Bruegel’s autograph paintings, which were highly sought after even shortly after his death in 1569. His influence on Dutch Golden Age painting and his innovative choice of subject matter have cemented his reputation as a formative figure in the art world. This painting, with its intricate portrayal of a popular festival and its underlying social commentary, stands as a testament to Bruegel’s artistic genius and his ability to capture the essence of 16th-century Flemish culture.