Netherlandish Proverbs

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Netherlandish Proverbs
Pieter Brueghel the Elder - The Dutch Proverbs - Google Art Project.jpg
Artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Year 1559
Type 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.

List of proverbs and idioms featured in the painting

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 100px
To be a pillar-biter (fr)(nl) To be a religious hypocrite Lower left 100px
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 100px
To bang one's head against a brick wall (fr)(nl) To try to achieve the impossible Lower left 100px
One foot shod, the other bare(fr)(nl) Balance is paramount Lower left 100px
The sow pulls the bung (fr)(nl) Negligence will be rewarded with disaster Lower left 100px
To bell the cat (fr)(nl) To carry out a dangerous or impractical plan Lower left 100px
To be armed to the teeth (fr)(nl) To be heavily armed Lower left 100px
To put your armor on (fr)(nl) To be angry Lower left 100px
One shears sheep, the other shears pigs (fr)(nl) One has all the advantages, the other none Lower left 100px
Shear them but do not skin them (fr)(nl) Do not press your advantage too far Lower left 100px
The herring does not fry here(fr)(nl) It's not going according to plan Lower left 100px
To fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe (nl) To do too much to achieve a little Lower left 100px
To get the lid on the head (nl) To end up taking responsibility Lower left 100px
The herring hangs by its own gills (fr)(nl) You must accept responsibility for your own actions Lower left 100px
There is more in it than an empty herring (nl) There is more to it than meets the eye Lower left 100px
What can smoke do to iron? (fr)(nl) There is no point in trying to change the unchangeable Lower left 100px
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] 100px
To sit between two stools in the ashes (fr)(nl) To be indecisive Lower left 100px
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 100px
The scissors hang out there (fr)(nl) They are liable to cheat you there Upper left 100px
To always gnaw on a single bone (fr)(nl) To continually talk about the same subject Upper left 100px
It depends on the fall of the cards (fr)(nl) It is up to chance Upper left 100px
The world is turned upside down (fr)(nl) Everything is the opposite of what it should be Upper left 100px
Leave at least one egg in the nest (fr)(nl) Always have something in reserve Upper left 100px
To crap on the world (fr)(nl) To despise everything Upper left 100px
To lead each other by the nose (fr)(nl) To fool each other Upper left 100px
The die is cast (fr)(nl) The decision is made Upper left 100px
Fools get the best cards (fr)(nl) Luck can overcome intelligence Upper left 100px
To look through one's fingers (fr)(nl) To turn a blind eye Upper left 100px
There hangs the knife (fr)(nl) To issue a challenge Upper left 100px
There stand the wooden shoes (fr)(nl) To wait in vain Upper left 100px
To stick out the broom (fr)(nl) To have fun while the master is away Upper left 100px
To marry under the broomstick (fr)(nl) To live together without marrying Upper left 100px
To have the roof tiled with tarts (fr)(nl) To be very wealthy Upper left 100px
To have a hole in one's roof (fr)(nl) To be unintelligent Upper left 100px
An old roof needs a lot of patching up (fr)(nl) Old things need more maintenance Upper left 100px
The roof has lathes(fr)(nl) There could be eavesdroppers (The walls have ears) Middle left 100px
To have toothache behind the ears(fr)(nl) To be a malingerer Middle left 100px
To be pissing against the moon(fr)(nl) To waste one's time on a futile endeavour Middle left 100px
Here hangs the pot(fr)(nl) It is the opposite of what it should be Middle left 100px
To shoot a second bolt to find the first(fr)(nl) To repeat a foolish action Upper left 100px
To shave the fool without lather(fr)(nl) To trick somebody Middle 100px
Two fools under one hood(fr)(nl) Stupidity loves company Middle 100px
It grows out of the window(fr)(nl) It cannot be concealed Middle 100px
To play on the pillory(fr)(nl) To attract attention to one's shameful acts Upper middle 100px
When the gate is open the pigs will run into the corn(fr)(nl) Disaster ensues from carelessness Upper middle 100px
When the corn decreases the pig increases If one person gains then another must lose Upper middle 100px
To run like one's backside is on fire(fr)(nl) To be in great distress Upper middle 100px
He who eats fire, craps sparks Do not be surprised at the outcome if you attempt a dangerous venture Upper middle 100px
To hang one's cloak according to the wind(fr)(nl) To adapt one's viewpoint to the current opinion Upper middle 100px
To toss feathers in the wind (fr)(nl) To work fruitlessly Upper middle 100px
To gaze at the stork(fr)(nl) To waste one's time Upper middle 100px
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 100px
To fall from the ox onto the rear end of an ass(fr)(nl) To fall on hard times Upper middle 100px
To kiss the ring of the door (fr)(nl) To be obsequious Upper middle 100px
To wipe one's backside on the door (nl) To treat something lightly Upper middle 100px
To go around shouldering a burden (fr) (nl) To imagine that things are worse than they are Upper middle 100px
One beggar pities the other standing in front of the door(nl) Being afraid for competition Upper middle 100px
To fish behind the net (fr)(nl) To miss an opportunity Middle 100px
Sharks eat smaller fish (fr)(nl) Anything people say will be put in perspective according to their level of importance Middle 100px
To be unable to see the sun shine on the water(fr)(nl) To be jealous of another's success Middle 100px
It hangs like a privy over a ditch (fr)(nl) It is obvious Middle 100px
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 100px
They both crap through the same hole (fr)(nl) They are inseparable comrades Middle 100px
To throw one's money into the water(fr)(nl) To waste one's money Middle 100px
A wall with cracks will soon collapse(fr)(nl) Anything poorly managed will soon fail Middle right 100px
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 100px
To drag the block(fr)(nl) To be deceived by a lover or to work at a pointless task Upper right 100px
Fear makes the old woman trot(fr)(nl) An unexpected event can reveal unknown qualities Upper right 100px
Horse droppings are not figs (fr)(nl) Do not be fooled by appearances Upper right 100px
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 100px
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 100px
Everything, however finely spun, finally comes to the sun(nl) Nothing can be hidden forever Upper right 100px
To keep one's eye on the sail(fr)(nl) To stay alert, be wary Upper right 100px
To crap on the gallows(fr)(nl) To be undeterred by any penalty Upper right 100px
Where the carcass is, there fly the crows(fr)(nl) If there's something to be gained, everyone hurries in front Upper right 100px
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 100px
Who knows why geese go barefoot?(fr)(nl) There is a reason for everything, though it may not be obvious Upper right 100px
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 100px
To see bears dancing[note 2](fr)(nl) To be starving Right 100px
Wild bears prefer each other's company[note 2](nl) Peers get along better with each other than with outsiders Right 100px
To throw one's cowl over the fence(fr)(nl) To discard something without knowing whether it will be required later Right 100px
It is ill to swim against the current(fr)(nl) It is difficult to oppose the general opinion Right 100px
The pitcher goes to the water until it finally breaks(fr)(nl) Everything has its limitations Right 100px
The broadest straps are cut from someone else's leather (fr)(nl) One is quick to another's money. Right 100px
To hold an eel by the tail(fr)(nl) To undertake a difficult task (Compare: "Catch a tiger by the tail") Right 100px
To fall through the basket(fr)(nl) To have your deception uncovered Right 100px
To be suspended between heaven and earth(nl) To be in an awkward situation Right 100px
To keep the hen's egg and let the goose's egg go(fr)(nl) To make a bad decision Right 100px
To yawn against the oven(fr)(nl) To attempt more than one can manage Lower right 100px
To be barely able to reach from one loaf to another(fr)(nl) To have difficulty living within budget Lower right 100px
A hoe without a handle(fr)(nl) Probably something useless[note 3] Lower right 100px
To look for the hatchet(fr)(nl) To try to find an excuse Lower right 100px
Here he is with his lantern(nl) To finally have an opportunity to show a talent Lower right 100px
A hatchet with a handle(fr)(nl) Probably signifies "the whole thing"[note 3] Lower right 100px
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 100px
To put a spoke in someone's wheel(fr)(nl) To put up an obstacle, to destroy someone's plans Lower right 100px
Love is on the side where the money bag hangs(fr)(nl) Love can be bought Lower right 100px
To pull to get the longest end(fr)(nl) To attempt to get the advantage Lower right 100px
To stand in one's own light(nl) To behave contrarily to one's own happiness or advantage Lower right 100px
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 100px
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 100px
To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ(fr)(nl) To hide deceit under a veneer of Christian piety Lower right 100px
To have to stoop to get on in the world(fr)(nl) To succeed one must be willing to make sacrifices Lower right 100px
To cast roses before swine(nl) To waste effort on the unworthy Lower middle 100px
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 100px
To be as gentle as a lamb(fr)(nl) Someone who is exceptionally calm or gentle Lower middle 100px
She puts the blue cloak on her husband(fr)(nl) She deceives him Lower middle 100px
Watch out that a black dog does not come in between(fr)(nl) Mind that things don't go wrong Lower middle 100px
One winds on the distaff what the other spins(fr)(nl) Both spread gossip Lower middle 100px
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 100px
To hold a candle to the Devil(fr)(nl) To flatter and make friends indiscriminately Middle 100px
To confess to the Devil(fr)(nl) To reveal secrets to one's enemy Middle 100px
The pig is stabbed through the belly(fr)(nl) A foregone conclusion or what is done can not be undone Middle 100px
Two dogs over one bone seldom agree(fr)(nl) To argue over a single point Middle 100px
When two dogs fight out who gets the bone,the third one steals it(fr)(nl) Self-explanatory Middle 100px
To be a skimming ladle(fr)(nl) To be a parasite or sponger Middle 100px
What is the good of a beautiful plate when there is nothing on it?(fr)(nl) Beauty does not make up for substance Middle 100px
The Fox and the Stork dine together(fr)(nl) Two deceivers always keep their own advantage in mind[note 4] Middle 100px
To blow in the ear(fr)(nl) To spread gossip Middle 100px
Chalk up a debt(fr)(nl) To owe someone a favour Middle 100px
The meat on the spit must be basted(fr)(nl) Certain things need constant attention Middle 100px
There is no turning the spit with him(fr)(nl) He is uncooperative Middle 100px
To sit on hot coals(fr)(nl) To be impatient Middle 100px
To catch fish without a net(fr)(nl) To profit from the work of others Middle 100px

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. 2.0 2.1 The exact proverb depicted is not known with certainty.
  3. 3.0 3.1 The exact meaning of the proverb is not known.
  4. This proverb clearly derives from Aesop's Fables The Fox and the Stork.


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  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Erasmus, Desiderius. Adagia (Leiden 1700 ed.). University of Leiden: Department of Dutch language and literature.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  6. Lebeer, L. (1939–40). "De Blauwe Huyck". Gentsche Bijdragen tot de Kunstgeschiedenis. 6: 161–229.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 "Die blau huicke is dit meest ghenaemt / Maer des weerelts abuisen het beter betaempt". Prints. Nicolaas Teeuwisse. Retrieved 11 August 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Hagen 2000, pp. 36-37.
  9. "Spreekwoorden". Middeleeuwen. Retrieved 11 August 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "熱血時報 - 大粵港諺語 - 阿塗 - 專欄部落".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Cantonese Proverbs in One Picture". 廣府話小研究Cantonese Resources.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Hagen, Rainer (2000). Hagen, Rose-Marie, ed. Bruegel: The Complete Paintings. Taschen. ISBN 3822859915.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • De Rynck, Patrick (1963). How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters. New York: Abrams. ISBN 0810955768.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • "The Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel the Younger". Fleming Museum, University of Vermont. 2004. Retrieved 18 May 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Mieder, Wolfgang (2004). "The Netherlandish Proverbs: An International Symposium on the Pieter Brueg(h)els". University of Vermont.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

Orenstein, Nadine M. (ed.) (2001). Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9780870999901. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links