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Original Issue


More than 70 youthful pastimes of the 16th century can he found in this rollicking masterpiece by Pieter Bruegel. An art historian and sometime sportsman now offers us a detailed look at several of the games and tells how they provide rare insights into the manners of another era and hold up a mirror to our own.

When you look at a barrel, it is apt to seem plump and complacent, in a way. It is an ordinary object, quite at home in the obvious world of things. But the inside of a barrel is something else again. That is a dark little world of its own. Psychologists find this big difference inside people, and spelunkers note the same thing about the Earth itself. In more subtle ways the same is true of art. I happen to be something of a sports enthusiast, but art history is my main field. To me it seems that every masterpiece is like a wine barrel ready to be breached. For instance, take the picture called Children's Games, which Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted a little over 400 years ago. Recently I spent some weeks in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum looking at that picture. It said new things to me every day. The time came, finally, when I had to leave it and return to my home in England. But I bought a large reproduction of the picture and collected all the books and pamphlets I could find that related to it, just to keep drinking the fine wine from Pieter Bruegel's bottomless barrel. And now what I would like to do is pass a glass or two of that wine on to you.

Children's Games is fantastically complex, yet alive all the way. It contains over 200 figures actively engaged in more than 70 different games. Most of the children present look like miniature adults, which is just how children appear to each other's eyes. There is no hint of sentimentality in the entire picture. These kids play with more passion than grace. Their games foreshadow adult furies, follies and aspirations. Each game seems to have been caught in mid-action by a fast camera; you get the feeling that it will whirl on again the moment you look away. But all the same, each separate child's gesture is really forever. And there you have the baffling sort of paradox that makes a masterpiece. Abraham Ortelius, the great geographer, was a good friend of the artist, and when Bruegel died Ortelius wrote an epitaph that helps explain this paradox: "In all his works, there is more intelligence than painting."

The full force of Ortelius' judgment comes home the moment you let your eyes roam across Children's Games. The picture radiates intelligence, and also plenty of painting. No artist ever exhibited finer craftsmanship. No one ever composed a picture on this scale, so loaded with detail, in such seemingly effortless fashion. A suburban crossroad lies before you. The season is summer, and masses of children have come tumbling out of doors. Their scurrying, yelping, scuffling, dusty cries thread the sweet air.

You are looking down on the foreground from about the height of a second-story window. But as you glance into the background, your vantage point rises imperceptibly. Bruegel has used perspective tricks of his own invention to just about triple your field of vision. In this way he avoids overlapping and lets you see distant figures fairly clearly. You notice that his main design takes roughly the form of a lower-case y. The long stroke of the y is a straight street that bisects the picture from lower left to upper right. In the middle of the street six boys are having a camelback tournament while a second six play leapfrog. Farther along, some children are bowling against a wall. Others play follow-the-leader, and in the extreme distance they dance around a street fire. The street ends at a cathedral, yet its long canyonlike effect is vaguely sinister. Not so the short stroke of the y. This starts at about the picture's center, with two boys doing acrobatics on a hitching rail. This line of the design curves left under a portico where some little children are whipping tops. It ends at a cool and inviting swimming hole under the trees.

So much for a general view. The picture is built up of individual dramas and relationships that require much closer inspection at your leisure. Look, for example, at a few games near at hand in the painting's foreground. Has your eye yet happened to mark a portable toilet seat in the center there? A tiny trouserless boy has just stood up from that. He gallops off to the right. The hobbyhorse between his knees may seem a quaint form of transportation, the reason being that in our time the internal-combustion engine has supplanted horsepower, and tricycles have pushed the hobbyhorse from our sidewalks. But, from 3,000 years ago until the other day, hobbyhorses were standard equipment for kids.

As a case in point, consider the Nuremberg peace fair of 1650. That celebration, which occurred 90 years after this picture was painted, featured a hobbyhorse jamboree. Nearly 1,500 boys took part, each with his wooden mount. They must have made a bonny kind of cavalry. There is nothing particularly bonny, however, about Bruegel's embryonic horseman. His steed rears phallus-like from the grip of his hidden right fist. The stick body dragged beneath his shirttails seems to lunge. With the switch held in his left hand, the rider flicks at his mount's imagined flank. The boy is crouching down as he gallops, making a jagged pinwheel of intensity astride the rushing beast. Regard his floppy gray coat, several sizes too large. No doubt that is a hand-me-down from some elder brother. The same thing goes for the boy's cap, which he has yanked well down over his face in imitation of a knight-at-arms' visor. The eyes beneath that cap may or may not shine with concealed rainbows of fantasy. The boy himself may or may not be destined for trial in actual fact, upon some battlefield over time's horizon.

A small girl troubadour seems to be leading the hobbyhorseman along. Her cheeks are pink and puffed, her eyes tight shut. She bangs a drum and shrills upon a pipe at the same time. In cacophonous pretend parade she circles round a second little girl who is stooping to jab at some offal with a stick. Bruegel painted the stooping girl to be especially pristine in her blue and white costume. Like a stray bit of summer sky bending down to make contact with the Earth, she earnestly pokes and peers. The loose ends of her kerchief lie along her neck as tremblingly as rabbit ears.

Just in back of that first little group you notice a second trio. Two children are rocking a rather big baby on their joined hands. This pastime is usually accompanied by a nursery rhyme of some kind, such as London Bridge. No doubt it dates back to the very beginnings of human family life. One could easily collect a hundred different ditties that are still sung to this particular game. Here is one example only, the words of which seem nicely calculated to increase the baby's half-fearful delight:

Catch him, crow! Carry him, kite!
Take him away till the apples are ripe;
When they are ripe and ready to fall,
Here comes baby, apples, and all.

Like a ripe apple swinging down into the world of time and space is just how Bruegel depicted this red-gowned infant. The baby constitutes a delicious burden, perhaps. Yet he must be a good bit heavier than bargained for. The boy and girl who bear his weight with awkward good nature are playing and practicing both at once. They are practicing for parenthood, consciously or not.

Just to the right of those figures you see an upright barrel with a Star of David and a tiny hand sketched on its lid. At a rodeo or circus you might take this barrel for a strategically located hiding place. A little girl squats down to peep in the bunghole and smell its redolence, and possibly to give a joyful shout into the boomful black belly.

A big boy in red tights cavorts in front of the barrel. The hoop he is rolling may have come from it. His corn-silk hair, calf's eyes and long-legged awkwardness indicate early adolescence: an age when all bets are off. Holding a bun in his left hand, he seems about to chew at it while stroking his hoop along. This looks to be the beginning of a hoop race. And though he may stumble before the end, this hesitant red-legged contender appears dangerous. He may surprise.

Ahead rushes another hoop roller whose long, backward-flapping blue coat carries the sheen and grace of a kingfisher's wing. Whether on account of some racing collision or perhaps a cuffing from some irate adult, his right ear has been bandaged up. The sky-blue cap and white bandage together give a gyroscope effect to this young fellow's head. His wide eyes appear reckless, witless or possibly both at once. He, too, carries a bun in his left hand. Perhaps the rules of this race call for one to eat and run. The boy must be a winner on occasion. The inside rim of his hoop is hung with prize money: small jingling coins.

As golfers cry "fore" today, so Renaissance hoopsters used to yell out "poortsy lantsy" as they charged along. In the narrow streets of the towns their sport grew to be something of a menace, which was accordingly legislated against. A typical edict passed by the town of Dortrecht in the year 1485 requires scant translation. It reads: "Nyet en lopen by der straten mil hupen, roepende 'poortsy lantsy.' "

Just ahead of the hoop racers is a small boy, wandering across their course. He has his father's slippers on, it seems. The heels stick out so that he appears to be walking backward. He also wears a paper crown, slued around at an untidy angle. This child is inflating an ox bladder by mouth. When the bladder is fully distended he will twist its neck shut. But just then a surprise may come. Collision looms. If the hoop racers plow into the dreamy bladder blower, a loud vulgar bubble of noise will burst from this corner of Bruegel's picture. With a ghostly chuckle of anticipation, the artist sits back and waits for destiny to take its course.

A building beam anchors the right-hand foreground of Bruegel's composition. A solid young fellow with a priestly smile sits on the beam. His knees make a head cushion and his folded arms act as a blindfold for another boy, who bends down like a billy goat on a short tether. Behind that boy is a second, also bent down, who forms the billy goat's hindquarters. A rival pair of boys rides the goat's back. They have roughly jumped up astride their friends. The hindmost rider raises his left hand and shouts something to the youngsters playing the role of billy goat. What does he shout?

The answer to that question rings right around the world. It has done so for a very long time. Iona and Peter Opie, the British anthropologists, have succeeded in tracing that particular shout all the way back to ancient Rome. Petronius Arbiter, who lived in Nero's time, described a scene in which a slave boy playfully leaps up on his master's back and calls out: "Bucca, bucca, quot sunt hic?" In our own day Swedish schoolboys make it:

Bulleri, bulleri bock
Hur många horn står upp?

In the Republic of South Africa, meanwhile, the Boer children sing out:

Bok, bok, staan styf.
Hoeveel vingers op jou lyf?

And in Brooklyn, N.Y. the limerick is much the same:

Buck, buck, you lousy muck,
How many fists have I got up,
One, two, or none?

If the goat guesses wrong in this game it remains the goat. But a correct answer gives it the right to rise and hurl its riders to the ground. They thereupon become the goat for the next round. So Bruegel's picture here presents a cyclic—not to mention revolutionary—game which appears half as old as history.

A little girl has turned the lower corner of the beam into a store counter. Her whole merchandise consists of a single brick. Busily she pulverizes this to sell as saffron or flour or salt or sugar, depending on your own particular needs. A twisted piece of paper serves as a scoop with which to dispense her wares. The scoop resembles a conch shell: a very old symbol for creation out of the void. The tiny storekeeper also possesses a pair of scales, which appear to have been made of a turnip split in half. They recall the ancient Egyptian "weighing of souls," the constellation Libra and, of course, the Last Judgment. These metaphysical overtones are perfectly intentional on Bruegel's part. Yet no one takes the least notice of them.

Centuries pass. The customers gather not. The storekeeper still bows her head over her wares, obstinately. Behind her back there stretches a dueling ground of a kind, worn bare of grass. Two older boys kneel on the ground to engage in a ritual contest of mumblety-peg. This game requires each player in turn to fling a knife from awkward positions and make it stick point down. Experts know how to do this from both the palm and the back of the hand, from behind each ear and even backward over their heads. However, the stunt which Bruegel portrays is harder than any of those. The boy in white is just about to knock the knife spinning from betwixt his teeth into the ground. He looks a bit desperate. His companion keeps careful watch to make sure that the rules are observed.

The name of this game refers to its proper conclusion, which goes like this: the winner uses his knife handle to hammer a peg into the earth. He gives the peg one hammerblow for each point of his victory margin. Then the loser has to pull, or "mumble-the-peg," out of the ground with his teeth.

There will be slight pause for peg-mumbling. Meanwhile, hear the words of a judicious art historian named Valentin Denis. Bruegel's art, he says, "can best be understood by men equipped with considerable knowledge not only of the ancient classics and local literature but also of the imaginative customs and language of the common people. Like Rabelais and Shakespeare, Bruegel adapted the slightly pretentious fashion of his age: a show of learning...hidden under everyday appearances."

Rabelais, you may remember, listed no less than 217 children's games in his famous book, Gargantua. As for Shakespeare, he was the most eruditely playful of all playwrights. For his sense of humor, drama and mystery—all three—Bruegel belongs in the company and class of Rabelais and Shakespeare. In my humble opinion these three were the true giants of the Northern Renaissance. But that is by the way. Have you noticed that low circle of bricks in back of the mumblety-peg players? Those bricks are a good example of "everyday appearances" that conceal a great deal.

Here lies the largely ruined circular base of what must have been a brick tower. Apparently some children began building the tower as a clubhouse and then abandoned it. This detail of Children's Games is unique in that it contains no protagonists. Those scattered bricks circle back and back symbolically, away from the present into the distant past.

Three times in his painting career Bruegel illustrated one and the same Old Testament tale. This story tells how once upon a time people set themselves to build a tower that would reach heaven. God foiled their plan. He put many different languages into the minds of the builders. The masons thereupon ceased to understand what the architects were saying, the engineers could no longer communicate with the diggers and the contractors bargained at cross-purposes. Regretfully, therefore, they all abandoned work. Time wore their sore-thumb skyscraper down to nothing at all. Yet it remained in men's minds as the ultimate symbol of human vanity: the Tower of Babel.

The detritus of that tower appears once more in Children's Games. Children also have their differing tongues—their games—each one of which carries a separate set of rules. So, tribe by tribe, they have now scattered far and wide from the abandoned tower. Heaven remains safe for the moment, even from children.

To the left of the bricks a boy can be seen being bounced up and down against the building beam. His smooth young face is dignified and set. Like a Roman soldier or Red Indian of legend, he keeps his composure, even in pain. Doubtless the boy is paying a forfeit for something. In Bruegel's nonaffluent world, prizes were rare and forfeits commonplace. Children take to both game endings, of course, with all their hearts. They are no greedier, crueler, braver or better than their parents.

"Demonic, awkward, musty, encapsuled, compelled, unlovable"—those are just a few of the jarring epithets that critic Paul Portmann found for the figures in Children's Games. And yet, Portmann conceded, "their unrestrained surrender to games would bring a secret smile to the lips of even the strictest schoolmaster." I agree that there is nothing particularly cute about these kids. And I too find myself drawn right inside their games. They themselves care about what they are doing; that is the main thing. These children are being bowled along and flung about by the marvelous force of their own playmaking. Bittersweet, ephemeral and eternal is the passion which they display.

For example, observe that pair of roughriders to the left of the boy who is being bounced. They have laid a barrel on its side and they have mounted it, facing each other and gripping the bunghole. Between their thighs the barrel rolls and pitches as they ride. The fellow in canary-yellow tights, with his cap set at a perilous angle, seems about to pull a fast one on his friend. Notice that left foot of his, under the long rust-colored coat. In just a moment that foot may lick out like a lawyer's tongue to spin the barrel hard right and tumble his companion to the ground.

This possibility stands present, threatening yet invisible, to the seasick eyes of the boy opposite. His hair, therefore, bristles with animal distress and fear. He rides like a jockey, too high on the barrel. His look recalls the demented horror of condemned souls hurtling down to hell in obscure church frescoes.

Bruegel made a practice of mingling funny things with dark, forbidding ones. In that sense he created his own swarming "theater of the absurd." Black humor, by the way, is not so modern as some people think. Among its many precedents were the Dance of Death pageants commonly performed in Bruegel's day. Those street plays were partly comic and partly religious. They taught people to get ready for death and laugh about it as well.

With that in mind, let your glance sweep left again across the foreground of Children's Games. Passing the upright barrel and the baby rocked in the arm cradle, you come upon a peculiar small parade. The child at the tail end of this line is shrouded, head to feet, in a blue cloak. The next and littlest in line smiles beatifically; perhaps she is too young to understand this game. The second from the front has pulled her voluminous skirt up over her own head. The leader carries a small bundle. It appears to be the same size as a newborn baby. This has led certain historians to conclude that the procession represents part of a make-believe christening. But christenings are happy occasions. Here three of the four children stumble heavily along, as though sunk in gloom. Moreover, the foremost of them carries her bundle stiffly, flat across her wrists, as if pretending to hold a corpse.

Funereal or not, the file will have to turn aside in a moment. Two older girls are playing knucklebones directly in its path. They have five bones in use, with more reserved in basket and apron. Crouching, catlike, the girl on the right makes a toss. She keeps her eyes fixed upon the knucklebone twirling above her head. The other bones must be made to follow the first, juggled in a complex pattern of catch and toss. The other girl waits and watches, kneeling like an acolyte. The turn of her open hand and the thrust of her pale smooth neck are curiously intense. Under that concealing bonnet she may be chanting the sequences of the game for her friend. How do they go? "Creeps. Clicks. No clicks. Pigs in a basket. Little maids. Big maids. First everlastings...." Something like that.

The game itself may well be the oldest one requiring equipment in the world. We call it "jacks" or "jackstones," and play it with pronged metal pieces and a rubber ball. Bruegel and his friends used knucklebones, and they seem to have called it by a fine euphonious name: Hilten, Hielten, Bickelen, Pickelen. In Japan it has been known as Otedama since the dawn of history. The Greeks referred to it as Pentalitha (fivestones). Sets for the game have been unearthed from Bronze Age tombs and prehistoric lake dwellings. Thunder was once ascribed to the noise of a game of knucklebones being played across Heaven's transparent parqueting.

To the left of the knucklebone players an open door affords a glimpse of a second pair of girls. These two are making rag dolls that are dressed just like their creators, in kerchiefs and aprons. The dolls seem practically human, yet if they were really so the girls would have to be considered superhuman or even divine.

As dolls are to human beings, so people are to divinity. Myth and legend have made that point repeatedly. For example, Sumerian texts (which are among the earliest known) relate how the god Enkidu shaped the first human beings out of mud. The Hebrews say it was Jehovah who breathed life and spirit into Adam's clay. The Greek Pandora was a living doll, created by the gods on Mount Olympus for the purpose of making men miserable. Witches who stick pins in doll fetishes are assuming the privileges and manners of airy demons. Michelangelo carved majestic all-weather dolls. And Pieter Bruegel also played with dolls in his own quiet way.

Can you not picture him sitting beside the girls, just behind the frame of his own painting, making figures of live children and shooing them, one by one, out of doors? In this light Children's Games becomes a vast street romp ebulliently poured from a single, semi-divine child's fingers.

An infant wearing a long apron stands beside the front of the door, facing an outdoor workbench at which three older children congregate. In his left fist the infant forgetfully holds a top. Such tops as his were customarily numbered on each facet for gambling purposes. But this boy's top is blank as yet. Meanwhile, the backward tilt of his head, the smiling curve of his cheek and especially the outflung gesture of both his arms, all express joyous astonishment. He seems overwhelmed by the cleverness of the older boys.

The child ensconced behind the bench on the right-hand side has been blessed with a tiny pet. Animals were kept for food, for use or for the rich in Bruegel's day. Very few children could afford a pony or a puppy. But peasant boys used to catch and tame birds for pets. The bird on the bench seems to be a finch; specifically, a Carduelis carduelis. Perhaps it makes its home in that cagelike dunce cap of bulrushes the boy has on his head.

Incidentally, the eye of imagination will soon discern a second pet quite near the first. This one may be the medieval equivalent of the Easter Bunny or a hunting hound or a war horse, or even a raging lion. It will not run away, in any case, for its master has tied the beast securely to the end of the workbench. To uninstructed eyes, of course, the creature is a mere brick.

Behind the workbench stands a plump young fellow in a blue smock. Like his neighbor, he also wears an open mesh dunce cap. Blowing out his cheeks, he puff's through a tube into some sort of bowl. What for? The most likely answer to that question is given by Jeanette Hills in her linguistic analysis of Children's Games. Such words as Blatern blazen, Bobbels blazen, Bobbelen, Bellen blazen and Zeepbel, she explains, can be traced back to Bruegel's own era. They all mean the thing which this boy must be doing; namely, blowing soap bubbles.

Does it seem frivolous to pore over such inconsequential matters as this? Perhaps we ought to put away childish pastimes. But then again, philosophers such as Schiller and Plato have dared to place games at the very center of civilized living. Schiller used to insist that people are fully human only when they play. As for Plato, he stated in the Laws that "we ought to spend our lives playing games."

My space is nearly up, and I have succeeded in introducing only the foreground figures of Children's Games. It will be for you to travel on into the distances of this painting if you feel so inclined. Bruegel brings the whole world of childhood, which has so often been lost and rediscovered, practically to your fingertips. Meanwhile, I shall conclude my own part of the business by pointing to the most mysterious and graceful figure in the entire composition. He wears tight-fitting lilac and a jester's hood. He sits poised upon one end of the workbench, as if he had just now floated down out of the air. A Renaissance toy known as a Rosmoelen is in his hand. This consists of a hollowed-out apple, a wooden spindle, three small horizontal crosses fitted with paper sails and finally some string, which is wrapped tight around the spindle. Whoever yanks that string out through the hole in the apple will make the sails twirl round and lift the spindle straight into the sky, like a helicopter.

That toy stands, to my mind, for what Bruegel has accomplished. His painting appears motionless, naturally. But, as you look at it, try pulling the string of your own childhood memories. Think of the many subtleties and sidelights which seem to have thronged Bruegel's own mind. Explore this light suburban summertime scene, winged as it is with children. Enter into the thing, and you may feel it soar.