Netherlandish Proverbs

Netherlandish Proverbs
Artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Year 1559
Type Oil-on-panel
Dimensions 117 cm × 163 cm (46 in × 64 in)
Location Staatliche Museen, Berlin Germany

Netherlandish Proverbs (also called The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World) is a 1559 oil-on-oak-panel painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder which depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish proverbs of the day. The picture is overflowing with references and most of the representations can still be identified; while many of the proverbs have either been forgotten or never made the transition to the English language, some are still in use. Proverbs were popular during Bruegel's time: a number of collections were published including a famous work by Erasmus. Frans Hogenberg had produced an engraving illustrating about 40 proverbs in around 1558 and Bruegel himself had painted a collection of Twelve Proverbs on individual panels by 1558 and had also produced Big Fish Eat Little Fish in 1556, but Netherlandish Proverbs is thought to be the first large scale painting on the theme. Rabelais depicted a land of proverbs in his novel Pantagruel soon after in 1564.

Bruegel's paintings have themes of the absurdity, wickedness and foolishness of mankind, and this painting is no exception. The picture was originally entitled The Blue Cloak or The Folly of the World which indicates he was not intending to produce a mere collection of proverbs but rather a study of human stupidity. Many of the people depicted show the characteristic blank features which Bruegel used to portray fools. His son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, specialised in making copies of his father's work, and painted up to twenty copies of Netherlandish Proverbs. Not all versions of the painting, by father or son, show exactly the same proverbs, also differing in other details.



There are around 100 identifiable idioms in the scene (although Bruegel may have included others). Some are still in use today, amongst them: "swimming against the tide", "big fish eat little fish", "banging one's head against a brick wall" and "armed to the teeth", and there are some that are familiar if not identical to the modern English usage, such as "casting roses before swine". Many more have faded from use or have never been used in English, "having one's roof tiled with tarts" for example which meant to have an abundance of everything and was an image Bruegel would later feature in his painting of the idyllic Land of Cockaigne. The Blue Cloak referred to in the painting's original title is being placed on the man in the centre of the picture by his wife. This was indicative that she was cuckolding him. Other proverbs indicate mankind's foolishness: a man fills in a pond after his calf has died, just above the central figure of the blue-cloaked man another man carries daylight in a basket. Some of the figures seem to represent more than one figure of speech (whether this was Bruegel's intention or not is unknown), such as the man shearing a sheep in the centre bottom left of the picture. He is sat next to a man shearing a pig, so represents the expression "one shears sheep and one shears pigs" meaning that one has the advantage over the other, but he may also represent the advice "shear them but don't skin them" meaning make the most of your assets.

Expressions featured in the painting[1]
Proverb Meaning Location
To even be able to tie the devil to a pillow Obstinacy overcomes everything NP-1.jpg
To be a pillar-biter To be a religious hypocrite NP-2.jpg
To carry fire in one hand and water in the other To be two-faced and to stir up trouble NP-3.jpg
To bang one's head against a brick wall To try to achieve the impossible NP-6.jpg
One foot shod, the other bare Balance is paramount NP-68.jpg
The sow pulls the bung Negligence will be rewarded with disaster NP-4.jpg
To bell the cat To carry out a dangerous or impractical plan NP-5.jpg
To be armed to the teeth To be heavily armed NP-5.jpg
To put your armor on To be angry NP-5.jpg
One shears sheep, the other shears pigs One has all the advantages, the other none NP-7.jpg
Shear them but do not skin them Do not press your advantage too far NP-18.jpg
The herring does not fry here Things do not go according to plan NP-15.jpg
To fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe To do too much to achieve a little NP-15.jpg
To get the lid on the head To end up taking responsibility NP-16.jpg
The herring hangs by its own gills You must accept responsibility for your own actions NP-17.jpg
There is more in it than an empty herring There is more to it than meets the eye NP-17.jpg
What can smoke do to iron? There is no point in trying to change the unchangeable NP-92.jpg
To find the dog in the pot To arrive too late for dinner and find all the food has been eaten NP-109.jpg[2]
To sit between two stools in the ashes To be indecisive NP-11.jpg
To be a hen feeler To count one's chickens before they hatch NP-8.jpg
The scissors hang out there They are liable to cheat you there NP-10.jpg
To always gnaw on a single bone To continually talk about the same subject NP-9.jpg
It depends on the fall of the cards It is up to chance NP-13.jpg
The world is turned upside down Everything is the opposite of what it should be NP-14.jpg
Leave at least one egg in the nest Always have something in reserve NP-12.jpg
To shit on the world To despise everything NP-19.jpg
To lead each other by the nose To fool each other NP-21.jpg
The die is cast The decision is made NP-90.jpg
Fools get the best cards Luck can overcome intelligence NP-20.jpg
To look through one's fingers To be indulgent NP-22.jpg
There hangs the knife To issue a challenge NP-23.jpg
There stand the wooden shoes To wait in vain NP-24.jpg
To stick out the broom To have fun while the master is away NP-25.jpg
To marry under the broomstick To live together without marrying NP-26.jpg
To have the roof tiled with tarts To be very wealthy NP-27.jpg
To have a hole in one's roof To be unintelligent NP-104.jpg
An old roof needs a lot of patching up Old things need more maintenance NP-105.jpg
The roof has lathes There could be eavesdroppers (The walls have ears) NP-103.jpg
To have toothache behind the ears To be a malingerer NP-29.jpg
To be pissing against the moon To waste one's time on a futile endeavour NP-32.jpg
Here hangs the pot It is the opposite of what it should be NP-106.jpg
To shoot a second bolt to find the first To repeat a foolish action NP-28.jpg
To shave the fool without lather To trick somebody NP-30.jpg
Two fools under one hood Stupidity loves company NP-34.jpg
It grows out of the window It cannot be concealed NP-33.jpg
To play on the pillory To attract attention to one's shameful acts NP-31.jpg
Where the gate is open the pigs will run into the corn Disaster ensues from carelessness NP-40.jpg
Where the corn decreases the pig increases If one person gains then another must lose NP-40.jpg
To run like one's backside is on fire To be in great distress NP-94.jpg
He who eats fire, shits sparks Do not be surprised at the outcome if you attempt a dangerous venture NP-94.jpg
To hang one's cloak according to the wind To adapt one's viewpoint to the current opinion NP-39.jpg
To toss feathers in the wind To work fruitlessly NP-42.jpg
To gaze at the stork To waste one's time NP-38.jpg
To want to kill two flies with one stroke To be efficient (equivalent to today's To kill two birds with one stone) NP-43.jpg
To fall from the ox onto the ass To fall on hard times NP-35.jpg
To kiss the ring of the door To be insincere NP-37.jpg
To wipe one's backside on the door To treat something lightly NP-36.jpg
To go around shouldering a burden To imagine that things are worse than they are NP-36.jpg
One beggar pities the other standing in front of the door Being afraid for competition NP-91.jpg
To fish behind the net To miss an opportunity NP-47.jpg
Big fish eat little fish NP-48.jpg
To be unable to see the sun shine on the water To be jealous of another's success NP-60.jpg
It hangs like a privy over a ditch It is obvious NP-112.jpg
Anybody can see through an oak plank if there is a hole in it There is no point in stating the obvious NP-45.jpg
They both shit through the same hole They are in agreement NP-46.jpg
To throw one's money into the water To waste one's money NP-61.jpg
A wall with cracks will soon collapse Anything poorly managed will soon fail NP-93.jpg
To not care whose house is on fire as long as one can warm oneself at the blaze To take every opportunity regardless of the consequences to others NP-44.jpg
To drag the block To be deceived by a lover or to work at a pointless task NP-50.jpg
Fear makes the old woman trot An unexpected event can reveal unknown qualities NP-49.jpg
Horse droppings are not figs Do not be fooled by appearances NP-53.jpg
If the blind lead the blind both will fall in the ditch There is no point in being guided by others who are equally ignorant NP-51.jpg
The journey is not yet over when one can discern the church and steeple Do not give up until the task is fully complete NP-52.jpg
Everything, however finely spun, finally comes to the sun Nothing can be hidden forever NP-111.jpg
To keep one's eye on the sail To stay alert, be wary NP-54.jpg
To shit on the gallows To be undeterred by any penalty NP-55.jpg
Where the carcass is, there fly the crows If the evidence points to something it is likely to be true NP-113.jpg
It is easy to sail before the wind If conditions are favourable it is not difficult to achieve one's goal NP-54.jpg
Who knows why geese go barefoot? There is a reason for everything, though it may not be obvious NP-56.jpg
If I am not meant to be their keeper, I will let geese be geese Do not interfere in matters that are not your concern NP-56.jpg
To see bears dancing[3] To be starving NP-57.jpg
Wild bears prefer each other's company[3] Peers get along better with each other than with outsiders NP-57.jpg
To throw one's cowl over the fence To discard something without knowing whether it will be required later NP-66.jpg
It is ill to swim against the stream It is difficult to oppose the general opinion NP-65.jpg
The pitcher goes to the water until it finally breaks Everything has its limitations NP-95.jpg
The best straps are cut from somebody else's leather Men cut the largest straps from other men's leather/It is easy to take from others work. NP-67.jpg
To hold an eel by the tail To undertake a difficult task NP-62.jpg
To fall through the basket To have your deception uncovered NP-59.jpg
To be suspended between heaven and earth To be in an awkward situation NP-59.jpg
To take the hen's egg and let the goose's egg go To make a bad decision NP-63.jpg
To yawn against the oven To attempt more than one can manage NP-64.jpg
To be barely able to reach from one loaf to another To have difficulty living within budget NP-69.jpg
A hoe without a handle Probably something useless[4] NP-96.jpg
To look for the hatchet To try to find an excuse NP-71.jpg
Here he is with his lantern To finally have an opportunity to show a talent NP-71.jpg
A hatchet with a handle Probably signifies "the whole thing"[4] NP-97.jpg
He who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again Once something is done it cannot be undone NP-70.jpg
To put a spoke in someone's wheel To put up an obstacle, to destroy someone's plans NP-73.jpg
Love is on the side where the money bag hangs Love can be bought NP-107.jpg
To pull to get the longest end To attempt to get the advantage NP-74.jpg
To stand in one's own light To be proud of oneself NP-72.jpg
No one looks for others in the oven who has not been in there himself To imagine wickedness in others is a sign of wickedness in oneself NP-72.jpg
To have the world spinning on one's thumb To have every advantage NP-85.jpg
To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ To hide deceit under a veneer of Christian piety NP-58.jpg
To have to stoop to get on in the world To succeed one must be devious NP-84.jpg
To cast roses before swine To waste effort on the unworthy NP-79.jpg
To fill the well after the calf has drowned To take action only after a disaster NP-75.jpg
To be as patient as a lamb To be very patient NP-101.jpg
She puts the blue cloak on her husband She deceives him NP-76.jpg
Watch out that a black dog does not come in between When two women are together a barking dog is not needed to add to the trouble they will cause NP-110.jpg
One winds on the distaff what the other spins Both spread gossip NP-77.jpg
To carry the day out in baskets To waste one's time NP-78.jpg
To hold a candle to the Devil To flatter and make friends indiscriminately NP-80.jpg
To confess to the Devil To reveal secrets to one's enemy NP-81.jpg
The pig is stabbed through the belly A foregone conclusion or what is done can not be undone NP-83.jpg
Two dogs over one bone seldom agree To argue over a single point NP-82.jpg
To be a skimming ladle To be a parasite or sponger NP-102.jpg
What is the good of a beautiful plate when there is nothing on it? Beauty does not make up for substance NP-99.jpg
The fox and the crane entertain each other Two deceivers always keep their own advantage in mind[5] NP-87.jpg
To blow in the ear To spread gossip NP-114.jpg
To chalk up To make sure to remember NP-100.jpg
The meat on the spit must be basted Certain things need constant attention NP-116.jpg
There is no turning the spit with him He is uncooperative NP-115.jpg
To sit on hot coals To be impatient NP-88.jpg
To catch fish without a net To profit from the work of others NP-117.jpg


  1. ^ From a list detailing the proverbs and meanings published by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and reproduced in Hagen pp.36-7.
  2. ^ The dirt on the painting makes it almost impossible to make out the dog here.
  3. ^ a b The exact proverb depicted is not known with certainty.
  4. ^ a b The exact meaning of the proverb is not known.
  5. ^ This is a reference to one of Aesop's Fables, The Fox and the Stork.

See also

  • Fleet Foxes (2008) - album features the painting on the cover art


External links

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