Only several dozen works of the great Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel are known to have survived since his career in the mid-16th century. His depictions of low-country peasant life—scenes of feasting, harvesting, hunting and so on—are prized for their warm, vivid realism. His work is particularly valuable because in his age (as in many others), artists depended on the patronage of the wealthy for their livelihood, which usually meant flattering them with portraits.
In 1564, Bruegel painted a large canvas, more than 5 feet wide, which depicted a scene of crucifixion. Called "The Way to Calvary," it depicts an event common to Western art and central to Christianity, but otherwise, the narrative is completely his own. It's the equivalent of a crowd shot in movies, and the man collapsing under his cross is in the middle distance, surrounded by red-clad horsemen. All around this central episode of suffering is a field filled with hundreds of people, from the foreground to the far, far distance. But each figure seems to be composed with a particular action, motivation or backstory—and it's not clear that everyone is aware that a man is being crucified.
In the marvelous—perhaps even miraculous—new movie The Mill and the Cross, filmmaker Lech Majewski contemplates the making of this painting, and the stories of the people in it. Majewski's film, like his subject's paintings, revels in the earthy details of 16th-century Flemish life even as it employs up-to-the-minute CGI techniques to bring this wonderfully complex painting to life. Not to be missed.