Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Two Monkeys” from 1562 is a captivating work that has intrigued art enthusiasts and scholars for centuries. This small oak panel features two white-collared monkeys, identified as collared mangabeys from West Africa, chained to a metal hasp under an archway. The setting is the Flemish port city of Antwerp, depicted with a misty harbor and a skyline punctuated by spires in the background.
The painting is not merely an animal study but serves as an allegory. Historically, monkeys in art have been associated with negative traits such as mischief, shamelessness, and sinfulness, often symbolizing the devil or sinful man ruled by lust. In Bruegel’s work, these chained creatures represent more than just their species; they are a metaphor for human folly, the self-imposed chains of mankind, and the universal desire for freedom inherent in all beings.
Bruegel was renowned for his landscapes and peasant scenes, pioneering these subjects in large paintings during the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance. His work often contained complex visual parables, transforming daily observations into profound allegorical messages. “Two Monkeys” is no exception, as it has been interpreted as a commentary on various themes, including the oppression of the Flemish provinces under Spanish rule, the captivity of the human spirit, and the moral and spiritual lowliness from which mankind is rescued.
The painting’s symbolism may also draw inspiration from an earlier work by the Italian artist Gentile da Fabriano, whose “Adoration of the Magi” featured chained monkeys beneath an arc, symbolizing mankind’s innate corruption. Bruegel’s monkeys could be seen as a reinvention of this motif, suggesting that humanity’s downfall is due to the metaphorical chains we place on ourselves and each other.
Despite its seemingly straightforward appearance, “Two Monkeys” is a dense and enigmatic icon, encapsulating Bruegel’s genius in using a simple scene to convey a message that resonates with the biggest problems of mankind. The painting’s intimate scale suggests it was meant for personal reflection, perhaps passed around in social gatherings among Bruegel’s close circle, inviting viewers to ponder the deeper meanings behind the image.