The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel I

The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562, Oil on wood, 117 x 162 cm, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Inv. 584, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Bestial Ba/ulking

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

Viewer, beware! War in heaven, Michael’s leading role, the dragon’s counteroffensive and subsequent defeat, and his army’s casting out and down are all packed into Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562). And this is not all. As well as the narrative swelling, the panel heaves with a vast angelic and demonic horde. In this arresting portrayal, the rebel angels descend from heaven (indicated by the circular empyrean at the top), transforming into an array of hybrid creatures and converging into a vast writhing bulk in the lower section of the painting. It is a dizzying viewing experience. 

Yet a closer examination of this seething mass reveals the body of the dragon traversing the fray. Belly up, his tail runs from the empyrean down to his seven horned and crowned heads which can be seen staring into the abyss in the bottom right. The dragon’s body allows us to trace the path of his descent, and his colossal cohort swarms around his centralized form. Michael is also centred, represented as a slender figure clad in gold armour and trampling over this heaving bestial bulk. His angelic cohort populates the top register of the painting, driving down this flesh-fin-feather frenzy.

The effect is clear: as angels slash at lurid demons who gnaw on themselves and others (middle right, bottom left) and an egg-ridden bird-fish bursts open (bottom right), this bestial bulk elicits a sense of disgust. Yet, while we may baulk at these sights, the bizarre forms of the fallen angels are still undeniably beguiling when rendered in such detail and diversity. 

Therefore, viewer, beware! This heady heap of hybridity provokes both disgust and desire, doing exactly what such a highly affective spectacle should: it entices us to stare a little more closely, for a little longer; to revel in revulsion. 

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