Painters as storytellers: The Mill and The Cross

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Way to Cavalry,” 1564. Located in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

When I was an art history undergrad at Tufts University, I took Northern Renaissance Art with esteemed art historian Madeline Caviness. Our class spent hours in the small, dank basement classroom looking at slides of paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder as well as other extraordinary Dutch and Flemish masters. I hope Professor Caviness will get a chance to see Lech Majewski�s new film, The Mill and the Cross, which takes viewers to sixteenth-century Flanders to watch Bruegel thoughtfully conceive �The Way To Calvary.�

In museums today, we often rush past the history paintings, but in the sixteenth century, these paintings were like epic feature films. Looking at older paintings, especially those painted by Dutch and Flemish masters who had phenomenal technique, contemporary painters (like me) are easily seduced by the paint handling and forget about the story. Masquerading as a Crucifixion, �The Way To Calvary� tells a compelling story about how the slow quietness of the Flemish villagers� everyday lives was disrupted by the monstrous brutality of the Spanish soldiers during the occupation and Inquisition. 

The Mill and the Cross, co-written by Majewski and art historian Michael Francis Gibson, is a intellectually innovative and visually mesmerizing reminder that artists are storytellers. In every great history painting, the artist is sharing a story in a very specific, carefully conceived way. If a painter were to re-stage the Crucifixion in our own time period, I wonder, what kind of story would he or she tell? Who would be the heretic? Who would be the Inquisitors? What stories will the paintings we make tell future generations–or have we already left the storytelling to filmmakers?

Review roundup:
New York Times:It isn�t the artist, it�s the art that�s the star here, and Mr. Majewski lavishes sophisticated, enchanting detail on its re-creation.”
NPR:  “The effect is rich and complex, as befits the artist’s ambitions. A painting “should be large enough to hold everything,” Bruegel explains to Jonghelinck, and The Mill and the Cross is worthy of that ideal. The movie certainly doesn’t contain everything, but its visual splendor argues for repeated viewings.”
The Stranger: “Majewski is not shy or indirect. Sometimes that means goofy monologues by Bruegel (Rutger Hauer, in a floppy-banged turn that demonstrates perfect restraint) and the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling, majestic sufferer). But that’s better than being opaque, as other imaginative adapters of paintings have been�artist Eve Sussman being chief perpetrator here, making big-budget contemporary reimaginings of paintings that give no earthly idea what drew her to the material in the first place. Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross�he also co-wrote Basquiat and directed 2004’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, about a Hieronymus Bosch scholar�is a meditation on the desire to make art in order to stop time. (I’ll stop the world and melt with you.) It’s wonderful.”

At the Film Forum through September 27, 2011. With Rutger Hauer (Pieter Bruegel), Charlotte Rampling (Mary) and Michael York (Nicholas Jonghelinck).

Watch the trailer to see how Majewski has combined traditional painting techniques with digital compositing, but keep in mind that the film’s color is much richer.


Bonus post: The history of my Northern Painting textbook

I dug out my old textbook, Northern Painting by Charles D. Cuttler, and “Road to Cavalary” had been highlighted–which means we discussed it in class and the image probably appeared on the exam. An art history professor at the University of Iowa, Cuttler recorded his lectures on reel-to-reel tapes and his wife Cecilia transcribed them each day. They edited and retyped numerous versions to create Northern Painting, which was first published in 1968 by Holt, Rhinehart Winston. Cuttler died in 2008 at 94 years old.

My professor, Madeline Caviness, is retired, but I recently found her on Facebook.


  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful compilation around 'Road to Cavelary',Majewski's film and especially sharing an image of the book written by your professor, very interesting story! Thanks.

  2. hey that a nice article and awesome photos.. great job.

  3. Charles Cutler was a dying breed of art historians, tons of detail to the point of losing the forest for the tree, an obsessive chronicler. Vexingly, in class, with two slide projectors, he would go on about Chartres for example, on the left, move onto Amiens, then forget he had a ton of detail slides of Chartres on the right. Your notes were a mess; no laptops then. He must have stopped using the recordings after publication, since I never saw a reel to reel in his Northern Renaissance. He would nap in the afternoon in his office, missing sometimes the first 20 min.s of class. He used the same carousel of slides each year for his classes.

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