Ceramics Today
Home | Articles | CT Update | Gallery | Contact | Search
Links A-Z
Ceramics in Art

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569)
Bruegel and his Rheinisch Stoneware

The Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, also nicknamed 'Peasant Bruegel' lived from 1525-1569. He was influenced by Hieronymous Bosch, while he himself strongly influenced later Flemish painting. The topics of his paintings were the countryside and the peasants that lived there (although he himself was far from being a peasant).

Peasant Dance

His work 'Peasant Dance', painted 1568, shows a group of peasants dancing to music in front of what might be the local tavern. The atmosphere is lively and a few drinks have probably already been downed - there is kissing going on and a heated discussion is happening at the table. The woman on the right has a money pouch and a key - she has some position of relative importance, perhaps a tavern or some other shop owner. The times seem happy and carefree, but war is not far away, and defense may be needed at any time, as evidenced by the short sword at the dancing man's side.

Interestingly for the potter, Bruegel's painting also depicts a number of Rheinisch stoneware pots. The name Rheinisch Stoneware (sometimes labeled 'Rhenish') stems from the river Rhine (in German, 'Rhein'), along which it was predominantly made during Bruegel's lifetime in the 16th C.

Bruegel jugBruegel jug

16th C salt-glazed jugAbove we see two examples of Rheinisch stoneware, a four handled and a single handled jug, extracted from Bruegel's painting. What can we deduce from this? First of all we can say that Rheinisch stoneware was made for the peasantry, and not the gentry of 16th C society. These were mugs and jugs made for everyday use and probably saw a lot of it, as is implied by the broken handle visible below the dancing woman on the right. Note the interesting blow-out firing fault visible on the single handled jug on the right, probably caused by a stone embedded in the rough clay. Note also the finger or thumb marks along the base of the pots, crudely making the 'frilled' foot rim typical of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. These vessels were not made with aesthetics in mind, but purely for functional purposes, without much time wasted on appearances. Rheinisch stoneware was salt-glazed ware, which 16th C Germany became particularly well known for. This was rough, tough stoneware, made for everyday domestic use - fermenting, drinking, storage etc., in contrast to the more decorative works of German faience. In color these salt-glazed stonewares ranged from gray to white and brown, depending on the iron content. Salt-glaze was particularly suited to functional ware, being even impervious to acids. Thus Rheinisch salt-glaze wares also found much use with apothecaries. Its main centers of manufacture were Cologne (Köln), Frechen, Höhr-Grenzhausen, Siegburg and Raeren (further to the south).

Map of central Europe

BartmannskrugA famous example of Rheinisch saltglaze is the 'Bartmannskrug', literally the 'Bearded Man Jug', a round-bellied jug with a bearded face on it's neck. In England, they were called 'Greybeards' or 'Bellarmines', which stems from the name of then hated Cardinal Bellarmino. Sprigged relief decoration is typical of Rheinisch stoneware, especially from the Renaissance and later periods.

Stoneware developed in Germany independently of Eastern influences around 800 AD. Salt-glaze emerged as a popular technique around the 16th C. Clays were mined with various methods. Around Siegburg, clay could be found close to the surface and only shallow digging was necessary, but at Raeren in the Westerwald, deep shafts were dug to reach the clay. Similar to ageing processes in the East, the clay was left exposed to the elements for a season or so, to improve plasticity. Later, sand would be added as a form of grog, to add 'tooth' and reduce shrinkage.

Medieval Female PotterBut it was not only clay that needed to be located close to the workshops, but also wood for firing. This was found in abundance in the Westerwald (the Western Wood), where beech was cut for that purpose. The wood had to be dried for up to six months before it could be used as fuel. When salt-glazing became common in the 16th C, large quantities of salt were also required. Being a well frequented trade route, the river Rhine was able to facilitate this. Thus we find the main salt-glaze centers in medieval Germany are located along or near river ports to which northern sea-salt would be delivered.

Interestingly, as can be seen from the mid 15th C Hofämterspiel tarot card above, strutted kick-wheels were in use at the time. The woman potter is using a piece of bone to incise a pattern on the pot she is throwing.

Bruegel's painting 'Peasant Dance' shows that Rheinisch saltglazed wares were widespread and not only popular in Germany but also in neighboring countries. In fact, Rheinisch stoneware was exported to England and as far as Quebec, Canada.

Further reading: David Gaimster, Stoneware Production in Medieval and Early Modern Germany, in Pottery in the Making, Freestone & Gaimster (ed.), London, 1997

More Articles

© Ceramics Today