|The Blind Leading the Blind, 1568, Pieter Bruegel, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples. Wellcome Collection|
“Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the ditch.”
—Matthew 15:14, King James Version 21st Century
The Netherlandish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (b.ca.1525-d.1569), who lived and worked in Brussels, was considered “the most perfect painter of his century.”1 His brilliant work is still much admired today.
His 1569 painting, The Parable of the Blind, also called The Blind Leading the Blind, has attracted the attention of appreciative artists, ophthalmologists, and other physicians. The painting (see insert) shows six blind men walking single file, with the first having fallen into a ditch and the rest following.
Starting from the right, with the man in light blue who is beginning to fall, we see five men with five different eye diseases.1-4 This man in light blue has had bilateral enucleation, possibly as a punishment for a crime. The man to the left of him has a corneal leucoma (or leukoma), a thickening that may have resulted from an ulcer, another type of wound, or an infection. On the other hand, he may have cataracts.
The next man in the procession has ocular atrophy (also called phthisis bulbi), caused by glaucoma or panophthalmia, a bilateral infection perhaps from a chemical or thermal burn.5 The next blind man evidences photophobia—his hat is arranged to keep light from his eyes—and blindness of undetermined cause. The man on the far left has had pemphigus,6,7 a blistering autoimmune disease, although others have suggested trachoma,8 an eye infection.
The men have their heads raised, as if trying to rely on the senses they still possess, that is, hearing and smell.9 They are equipped with a cloak, a hat, and a staff—the traditional outfit of religious pilgrims. However, they wear decent (if dirty) clothes, and some have full purses. One wears a gold cross. McCouat,10 an art historian, asks if these men are “bad pilgrims,” showing outward signs of faith but not really pursuing a quest for “finding spiritual truth.”
William Carlos William’s poem “The Parable of the Blind,”11—part of the series of poems Pictures from Brueghel (1962)—refers to the muted tones of the painting (“without a red”), but calls the men “beggars,” “destitute,” and “with their few pitiable possessions.” Thus he has a different interpretation of their status.
The citation at the beginning of this article from the Gospel of Matthew is not ambiguous. The “leaders” referred to are the leaders of the Jewish religious establishment, as seen by the followers of Jesus, in Jesus’ time. Who are the (current) leaders alluded to in the painting? Leaders of the Church? But which church? Leaders of the government of the Spanish Netherlands? Historians cannot decide if Bruegel was a Protestant, a Catholic, or a freethinker.12 In any case, even the Catholic inhabitants of the lowlands were revolted by the behavior of the occupying Spanish Catholic soldiers.
McCouat13 has the last word: “What then do we conclude? Is the Blind Leading the Blind a simple illustration of a popular proverb? . . . A warning about the impotence of a divided Church? Or a denunciation of the perfidy of the Spanish authorities? We simply cannot be sure.”
- Gregory Rutecky, “Bosch and Bruegel: Disability in 16th Century Art,” Alpha-Omega-Alpha [ed: I do not have these symbols].org/pharos.PDF, 2016.
- F. Santos-Bueso, F. Sáenz-Francés, and J Garciá-Sanchez, “Patologiá ocular en la obra de Pieter Bruegel el Viejo (I), El ciego guiá de ciegos (La parabola de los ciegos)”Archivos de la sociedad española de oftalmologiá, 2011; 86(7),232-233.
- Tony Michel Torillhon, “La patholgie chez Bruegel.” Thèses pour le doctorat en médecine. Faculté de Médecine de Paris, 1957.
- Philip McCouat, “Perception and blindness in the 16th century: Bruegel’s “The Blind Leading the Blind.” 2018, Journal of Art in Society.
- NA. “Medicine: Bruegel and Diagnosis, Time, Feb. 17, 1958.
- Torillhon, “La pathologie.”
- Rutecki, “Bosch and Bruegel.”
- Rutecki, “Bosch and Bruegel.”
- McCouat, “Perception.
- McCouat, “Perception.”
- William Carlos Williams, “The Parable of the Blind,” allpoetry.com
- Bob Claessens and Jeanne Rousseau, “Bruegel,” New York:Crown Publishers Inc, 1987.
- Rose-Marie Hagen and Rainer Hagen, “Bruegel: The Complete Paintings,” Köln:Taschen, 2005.
HOWARD FISCHER, MD, was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan. During his medical education in Belgium, he fell in love with the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.