Netherlandish Proverbs

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

Netherlandish Proverbs (Dutch: Nederlandse Spreekwoorden; also called Flemish Proverbs, The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World) is a 1559 oil-on-oak-panel painting by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder that depicts a scene in which humans and, to a lesser extent, animals and objects, offer literal illustrations of Dutch language proverbs and idioms.

Running themes in Bruegel's paintings are the absurdity, wickedness and foolishness of humans, and this is no exception. The painting's original title, The Blue Cloak or The Folly of the World, indicates that Bruegel's intent was not just to illustrate proverbs, but rather to catalog human folly. Many of the people depicted show the characteristic blank features that Bruegel used to portray fools.[1]

His son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, specialised in making copies of his father's work and painted at least 16 copies of Netherlandish Proverbs.[2] Not all versions of the painting, by father or son, show exactly the same proverbs and they also differ in other minor details.


Netherlandish Proverbs


Proverbs were very popular in Bruegel's time and before; a hundred years before Bruegel's painting, illustrations of proverbs had been popular in the Flemish books of hours.[3] A number of collections were published, including Adagia, by the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus.[4] The French writer François Rabelais employed significant numbers in his novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, completed in 1564.[5]

The Flemish artist Frans Hogenberg made an engraving illustrating 43 proverbs in around 1558, roughly the same time as Bruegel's painting.[6][7] The work is very similar in composition to Bruegel's and includes certain proverbs (like the blue cloak) which also feature prominently in Netherlandish Proverbs.[7] By depicting literal renditions of proverbs in a peasant setting, both artists have shown a "world turned upside down".[7]

Bruegel himself had painted several minor paintings on the subject of proverbs including Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1556) and Twelve Proverbs (1558), but Netherlandish Proverbs is thought to have been his first large-scale painting on the theme.

Proverbs and idioms

Critics have praised the composition for its ordered portrayal and integrated scene.[7] There are approximately 112 identifiable proverbs and idioms in the scene, although Bruegel may have included others which cannot be determined. Some of those incorporated in the painting are still in popular use, for instance "Swimming against the tide", "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 (1567).

The Blue Cloak, the piece's original title, features in the centre of the piece and is being placed on a man by his wife, indicating that she is cuckolding him. Other proverbs indicate human 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 sitting 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 may also represent the advice "Shear them but don't skin them", meaning make the most of available assets.

Expressions featured in the painting[8][9]
Proverb/idiom Meaning Area Image
To be able to tie even the devil to a pillow (fr)(nl) Obstinacy overcomes everything Lower left
To be a pillar-biter (fr)(nl) To be a religious hypocrite Lower left
Never believe someone who carries fire in one hand and water in the other (fr)(nl) To be two-faced and to stir up trouble Lower left
To bang one's head against a brick wall (fr)(nl) To try to achieve the impossible Lower left
One foot shod, the other bare(fr)(nl) Balance is paramount Lower left
The sow pulls the bung (fr)(nl) Negligence will be rewarded with disaster Lower left
To bell the cat (fr)(nl)To carry out a dangerous or impractical plan Lower left
To be armed to the teeth (fr)(nl) To be heavily armed Lower left
To put your armor on (fr)(nl) To be angry Lower left
One shears sheep, the other shears pigs (fr)(nl) One has all the advantages, the other none Lower left
Shear them but do not skin them (fr)(nl) Do not press your advantage too far Lower left
The herring does not fry here (nl)It's not going according to plan Lower left
To fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe (fr)(nl) To do too much to achieve a little Lower left
To get the lid on the head (nl) To end up taking responsibility Lower left
The herring hangs by its own gills (fr)(nl) You must accept responsibility for your own actions Lower left
There is more in it than an empty herring (nl) There is more to it than meets the eye Lower left
What can smoke do to iron? (fr)(nl) There is no point in trying to change the unchangeable Lower left
To find the dog in the pot (fr)(nl) To arrive too late for dinner and find all the food has been eaten Lower left[note 1]
To sit between two stools in the ashes (fr)(nl) To be indecisive Lower left
To be a hen feeler (fr)(nl) To depend on an uncertain outcome (c.f. to count one's chickens before they hatch) Middle left
The scissors hang out there (fr)(nl) They are liable to cheat you there Upper left
To always gnaw on a single bone (fr)(nl) To continually talk about the same subject Upper left
It depends on the fall of the cards (fr)(nl) It is up to chance Upper left
The world is turned upside down (fr)(nl) Everything is the opposite of what it should be Upper left
Leave at least one egg in the nest (fr)(nl) Always have something in reserve Upper left
To crap on the world (fr)(nl) To despise everything Upper left
To lead each other by the nose (fr)(nl) To fool each other Upper left
The die is cast (fr)(nl) The decision is made Upper left
Fools get the best cards (fr)(nl) Luck can overcome intelligence Upper left
To look through one's fingers (fr)(nl) To turn a blind eye Upper left
There hangs the knife (fr)(nl) To issue a challenge Upper left
There stand the wooden shoes (fr)(nl) To wait in vain Upper left
To stick out the broom (fr)(nl) To have fun while the master is away Upper left
To marry under the broomstick (fr)(nl) To live together without marrying Upper left
To have the roof tiled with tarts (fr)(nl) To be very wealthy Upper left
To have a hole in one's roof (fr)(nl) To be unintelligent Upper left
An old roof needs a lot of patching up (fr)(nl) Old things need more maintenance Upper left
The roof has lathes(fr)(nl) There could be eavesdroppers (The walls have ears) Middle left
To have toothache behind the ears(fr)(nl) To be a malingerer Middle left
To be pissing against the moon(fr)(nl) To waste one's time on a futile endeavour Middle left
Here hangs the pot(fr)(nl) It is the opposite of what it should be Middle left
To shoot a second bolt to find the first(fr)(nl) To repeat a foolish action Upper left
To shave the fool without lather(fr)(nl) To trick somebody Middle
Two fools under one hood(fr)(nl) Stupidity loves company Middle
It grows out of the window(fr)(nl) It cannot be concealed Middle
To play on the pillory(fr)(nl) To attract attention to one's shameful acts Upper middle
When the gate is open the pigs will run into the corn(fr)(nl) Disaster ensues from carelessness Upper middle
When the corn decreases the pig increases If one person gains then another must lose Upper middle
To run like one's backside is on fire(fr)(nl) To be in great distress Upper middle
He who eats fire, craps sparks Do not be surprised at the outcome if you attempt a dangerous venture Upper middle
To hang one's cloak according to the wind(fr)(nl) To adapt one's viewpoint to the current opinion Upper middle
To toss feathers in the wind (fr)(nl) To work fruitlessly Upper middle
To gaze at the stork(fr)(nl) To waste one's time Upper middle
To try to kill two flies with one stroke(fr)(nl) To be efficient (equivalent to today's To kill two birds with one stone) Upper middle
To fall from the ox onto the rear end of an ass(fr)(nl) To fall on hard times Upper middle
To kiss the ring of the door (fr)(nl) To be obsequious Upper middle
To wipe one's backside on the door (nl) To treat something lightly Upper middle
To go around shouldering a burden (fr) (nl) To imagine that things are worse than they are Upper middle
One beggar pities the other standing in front of the door(nl) Being afraid for competition Upper middle
To fish behind the net (fr)(nl) To miss an opportunity Middle
Sharks eat smaller fish (fr)(nl) Anything people say will be put in perspective according to their level of importance Middle
To be unable to see the sun shine on the water(fr)(nl) To be jealous of another's success Middle
It hangs like a privy over a ditch (fr)(nl) It is obvious Middle
Anybody can see through an oak plank if there is a hole in it (fr)(nl) There is no point in stating the obvious Middle
They both crap through the same hole (fr)(nl) They are inseparable comrades Middle
To throw one's money into the water(fr)(nl) To waste one's money Middle
A wall with cracks will soon collapse(fr)(nl) Anything poorly managed will soon fail Middle right
To not care whose house is on fire as long as one can warm oneself at the blaze(fr)(nl) To take every opportunity regardless of the consequences to others Middle right
To drag the block(fr)(nl) To be deceived by a lover or to work at a pointless task Upper right
Fear makes the old woman trot(fr)(nl) An unexpected event can reveal unknown qualities Upper right
Horse droppings are not figs (fr)(nl) Do not be fooled by appearances Upper right
If the blind lead the blind both will fall in the ditch(fr)(nl) There is no point in being guided by others who are equally ignorant Upper right
The journey is not yet over when one can discern the church and steeple (fr)(nl) Do not give up until the task is fully complete Upper right
Everything, however finely spun, finally comes to the sun(nl) Nothing can be hidden forever Upper right
To keep one's eye on the sail(fr)(nl) To stay alert, be wary Upper right
To crap on the gallows(fr)(nl) To be undeterred by any penalty Upper right
Where the carcass is, there fly the crows(fr)(nl) If there's something to be gained, everyone hurries in front Upper right
It is easy to sail before the wind(fr)(nl) If conditions are favourable it is not difficult to achieve one's goal Upper right
Who knows why geese go barefoot?(fr)(nl)There is a reason for everything, though it may not be obvious Upper right
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 Upper right
To see bears dancing[note 2](fr)(nl) To be starving Right
Wild bears prefer each other's company[note 2](nl) Peers get along better with each other than with outsiders Right
To throw one's cowl over the fence(fr)(nl) To discard something without knowing whether it will be required later Right
It is ill to swim against the current(fr)(nl) It is difficult to oppose the general opinion Right
The pitcher goes to the water until it finally breaks(fr)(nl) Everything has its limitations Right
The broadest straps are cut from someone else's leather (fr)(nl) One is quick to another's money. Right
To hold an eel by the tail(fr)(nl) To undertake a difficult task (Compare: "Catch a tiger by the tail") Right
To fall through the basket(fr)(nl) To have your deception uncovered Right
To be suspended between heaven and earth(nl) To be in an awkward situation Right
To keep the hen's egg and let the goose's egg go(fr)(nl) To make a bad decision Right
To yawn against the oven(fr)(nl) To attempt more than one can manage Lower right
To be barely able to reach from one loaf to another(fr)(nl) To have difficulty living within budget Lower right
A hoe without a handle(fr)(nl) Probably something useless[note 3] Lower right
To look for the hatchet(fr)(nl) To try to find an excuse Lower right
Here he is with his lantern(nl) To finally have an opportunity to show a talent Lower right
A hatchet with a handle(fr)(nl) Probably signifies "the whole thing"[note 3] Lower right
He who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again(fr)(nl) Once something is done it cannot be undone (Compare: "Don't cry over spilt milk") Lower right
To put a spoke in someone's wheel(fr)(nl) To put up an obstacle, to destroy someone's plans Lower right
Love is on the side where the money bag hangs(fr)(nl) Love can be bought Lower right
To pull to get the longest end(fr)(nl) To attempt to get the advantage Lower right
To stand in one's own light(nl) To behave contrarily to one's own happiness or advantage Lower right
No one looks for others in the oven who has not been in there himself(nl) To imagine wickedness in others is a sign of wickedness in oneself Lower right
To have the world spinning on one's thumb(fr)(nl) To have every advantage (Compare: "To have the world in the palm of your hand") Lower right
To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ(fr)(nl) To hide deceit under a veneer of Christian piety Lower right
To have to stoop to get on in the world(fr)(nl) To succeed one must be willing to make sacrifices Lower right
To cast roses before swine(nl) To waste effort on the unworthy Lower middle
To fill the well after the calf has already drowned(fr)(nl) To take action only after a disaster (Compare: "Shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted") Lower middle
To be as gentle as a lamb(fr)(nl) Someone who is exceptionally calm or gentle Lower middle
She puts the blue cloak on her husband(fr)(nl) She deceives him Lower middle
Watch out that a black dog does not come in between(fr)(nl) Mind that things don't go wrong Lower middle
One winds on the distaff what the other spins(fr)(nl) Both spread gossip Lower middle
To carry the day out in baskets(fr)(nl) To waste one's time (Compare: "to carry coals to Newcastle" and "to sell sand in the desert") Middle
To hold a candle to the Devil(fr)(nl) To flatter and make friends indiscriminately Middle
To confess to the Devil(fr)(nl) To reveal secrets to one's enemy Middle
The pig is stabbed through the belly(fr)(nl) A foregone conclusion or what is done can not be undone Middle
Two dogs over one bone seldom agree(fr)(nl) To argue over a single point Middle
When two dogs fight out who gets the bone,the third one steals it(fr)(nl) Self-explanatory Middle
To be a skimming ladle(fr)(nl) To be a parasite or sponger Middle
What is the good of a beautiful plate when there is nothing on it?(fr)(nl) Beauty does not make up for substance Middle
The Fox and the Stork dine together(fr)(nl) Two deceivers always keep their own advantage in mind[note 4] Middle
To blow in the ear(fr)(nl) To spread gossip Middle
Chalk up a debt(fr)(nl) To owe someone a favour Middle
The meat on the spit must be basted(fr)(nl) Certain things need constant attention Middle
There is no turning the spit with him(fr)(nl) He is uncooperative Middle
To sit on hot coals(fr)(nl) To be impatient Middle
To catch fish without a net(fr)(nl) To profit from the work of others Middle

Inspiration for other paintings

This painting has inspired others to depict multiple proverbs in their paintings, also. An illustration from the Hong Kong magazine Passion Times illustrates dozens of Cantonese proverbs.[10][11] The painting Proverbidioms was also inspired by this Dutch painting to depict English proverbs and idioms.


  1. The condition of the painting makes it almost impossible to make out the dog.
  2. 1 2 The exact proverb depicted is not known with certainty.
  3. 1 2 The exact meaning of the proverb is not known.
  4. This proverb clearly derives from Aesop's Fables The Fox and the Stork.


  1. "Pieter Bruegel". APARENCES. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  2. Wisse, Jacob. "Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525/30–1569)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  3. Rudy, Kathryn M. (2007). "Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs and the Borders of a Flemish Book of Hours". In Biemans, Jos; et al. Manuscripten en miniaturen: Studies aangeboden aan Anne S. Korteweg bij haar afscheid van de Koninklijke Bibliotheek. Zutphen: Walburg. ISBN 9789057304712.
  4. Erasmus, Desiderius. Adagia (Leiden 1700 ed.). University of Leiden: Department of Dutch language and literature.
  5. O'Kane, Eleanor (1950). "The Proverb: Rabelais and Cervantes". Comparative Literature. 2 (4): 360–369. doi:10.2307/1768392. JSTOR 1768392.
  6. Lebeer, L. (1939–40). "De Blauwe Huyck". Gentsche Bijdragen tot de Kunstgeschiedenis. 6: 161–229.
  7. 1 2 3 4 "Die blau huicke is dit meest ghenaemt / Maer des weerelts abuisen het beter betaempt". Prints. Nicolaas Teeuwisse. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  8. Hagen 2000, pp. 36-37.
  9. "Spreekwoorden". Middeleeuwen. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  10. "熱血時報 - 大粵港諺語 - 阿塗 - 專欄部落".
  11. "Cantonese Proverbs in One Picture". 廣府話小研究Cantonese Resources.


Further reading

Orenstein, Nadine M. (ed.) (2001). Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9780870999901. 

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