The Cripples as Social Commentary

It is often the case in cultural depictions of the disability that the disabled are represented as being upon the fringes of society.  Bruegel’s The Cripples exemplifies this mode of representation.  However, where many depictions may evoke sympathy or pity for the disabled, or perhaps may present the disabled as suffering for their sins, Bruegel takes a different approach.  In The Cripples, Bruegel portrays this group of disabled people in a ridiculous and slightly contemptible vein.

The beggars here do not appear to be simply congregating; rather they seem to be performing, as the far left figure shows by being airborne.  The second figure has his tongue out of his mouth in a silly gesture with one leg raise highly.  The inscription that is on the back of the painting, according to the Louvre, shows the contemptible manner in which they are held:  “Cripples, take heart, and may your affairs prosper.The snide comment needs little elaboration.

The man in the background is interesting.  He appears to be disinterested in the cripples, ignoring them as commonplace and perhaps something to be avoided.  He stays close to the wall and does not allow his eyes to wander.  The beggar to the far right appears to be facing him, perhaps asking for alms or the like.

The background is also interesting.  It appears the beggars are either in the courtyard of some building, perhaps a monastery or hospital, or they are just outside the building.  It would appear that as there is no one around except our passerby that the beggars are to a certain degree tolerated.

The Cripples provides an interesting view into how the sixteenth century viewed cripples as part of the social dynamic.  This piece specifically portrays them as somewhat of a nuisance, but a nuisance that is a part of everyday life.  It is a piece that is not concerned so much with a moral lesson as other portrayals of the disabled are, but rather it is concerned with this particular group of society as a group.


7 Responses to “The Cripples as Social Commentary”

  1. Dan Nehring Says:

    You offer an excellent breakdown of the elements of composition used in the painting and your speculation about the reasoning behind the piece offers an interesting take on the role of disability in the past. I think it’s smart to consider the period of history from which the painting comes and to acknowledge that the painting itself may offer little cultural significance aside from depicting a group of malcontents largely deemed tolerable but hardly desirable.
    As I was reading your post I was hoping that you would push your analysis further and analyze the painting in conjunction with the medical or social model but in your conclusion you suggest that the painting is unconcerned with offering those who view it a moral lesson or judgment. While I agree with your point that perhaps the medical and social models are a little advanced for this painting, it seems to me that the insincere inscription on the back of the painting remains highly suggestive of the stereotypes of disability we encounter today. I think that, given the sarcastic tone of the inscription, it attempts to assign a negative meaning to disability, as though the performance of the cripples in the painting demonstrates their worthlessness even if they are a part of daily life. I think it’s interesting to note our response to the painting as viewers as far as the medical and social models are concerned, especially given the changes in care and perception of disability. For modern viewers, does the painting offer a moral judgment of the disabled? I would like to hear your thoughts.

  2. 0nabrunivla Says:


    I loved your interpretation of this piece of art. I have to agree with Dan. I couldn’t figure out where the medical vs. social model lies although this IS a bit advanced to put a medical vs. social model analysis. However, something to think about is maybe from a social model view, one could say that in the 16th Century, cripples weren’t part of society whatsoever. So, in essence they were frowned upon and ignored almost entirely. Notice the man (honestly, I thought that was a woman because of the long cloak) simply turning his back on the cripples. In this pointing, they almost looked like they were looking for sympathy from anybody that was walking toward them. As far as modern viewers, I can say that as times changed, so have the attitudes of people and cripples. We HAVE come a long way since this painting that was painted in the 16th Century. We don’t simply ignore them anymore. They ARE part of our society. However, in the 21st Century, we still sometimes treat cripples like some sort of second or even third class citizens

  3. Monique Says:

    I enjoyed your paper and your interpretation of the painting. I agree that time. They did view people with disabilities as a bother and blemish of society. Although, we have advanced from the mind state of those in that era people with disabilities still suffer from stigmas of their condition.

  4. whitneylafond Says:

    Hi Joshua,
    I agree, interesting painting. However, there are many ways to look at any one painting. Yes, this may be a brutal commentary on the “unfortunates” as they may have been considered. On the fringe, performing, begging…. Or, this group may have been considered “fortunate” by their clan. They were deemed useful and interesting enough to be the subject of a painting. Their formation of a circle could mean unity, or a brotherhood. At least a two seem to be enjoying themselves. No condescension is meant here, just thinking. Sometimes, in an attempt to better understand, we make decisions by filling in the blanks and making them truths. The 16th century is hardly a time to be anything other than authority, wealth or clergy, but the masses did exist and it seems to me that Bruegel’s “The Cripple” has at least one positive result. We are still looking, analyzing and aware of the work. What it means to us, verses what it means to it’s creator, it’s time or any other time is still to be debated.

  5. Jake Greene Says:

    Good choice in painting, Breugel is one of my favorite Dutch artists. It would be important to mention in your analysis that Breugel was interested in portraying scenes of everyday life and that although this painting may seem to convey a negative image of the disabled, this type of scene was very common in the Netherlands. I agree with your idea that Breugel is deleniating the disabled as a specific group of society. In this way I believe bruegel is actually showing how they are equal members of society much like the peasants he paints in his other works. However, it is also easy to argue that Bruegel is creating his own interpretation of what qualifies as the “everyday”. In many of his peasant pieces, Bruegel portrays pessants as lazy and prone to drunkenness. This was true in some cases but his paintings would lead viewers to believe that it was much more prevalent than it actually was.

  6. Jake Greene Says:

    I like your choice of painting, bruegel is one of my favorite Dutch artists. It might be important to your analysis to mention that Bruegel was interested in painting scenes of everyday life. Therefore this kind of occurence of crippled people beggin in the streets may be an accurate, objective rendering of events. However, this argument could also be modified by the fact that many of Bruegels peasant pieces are not accurate renderings of peasant life. They often show peasants as lazy and drunken when this was probably not the case in many circumstances. It would be interesting to see how this painting matches up to what crippled beggars actually looked like in the Netherlands.

  7. Kaitlyn Brower Says:

    I like your interpretation of the movement and positioning of the bodies. They seem to be set apart from society in the middle of a court yard, performing for the people passing by. The tittle alone points to the degree in which they are set apart from society- “Cripples and Beggars.” The artist seems to set the men of the group apart from society within the title alone; he parallels Cripples to beggars. Do you think that the painter is remarking on the pity that is felt for “disabled” people?

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