Two chained monkeys are sitting in a vaulted window opening. By the looks of them, they are red-headed long-tailed monkeys native to the forests in West Africa. Behind the poor monkeys shows the beautiful scenery of the port city of Antwerp, Belgium. Why are those monkeys doing in Antwerp, instead of West Africa?
Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel (ca. 1525-1569) tried to vividly capture the era he lived in in his paintings. Although his paintings are excellent in realistic depiction, they are open to multiple interpretations as they are full of metaphors and symbols. “Two Monkeys,” which is smaller than the size of A4 paper, is the smallest and the most enigmatic of Bruegel’s 40 or so oil paintings. The monkeys in the painting were probably taken from Africa to Northern Europe by cruel animal traders. For Bruegel, who was based in Antwerp at that time, these monkeys from Africa must have been a marvelous animal worth commemorating.
The monkey on the left is looking at us while the other on the right is staring at the ground, with its back turned against us. There are empty shells of walnuts around them. These monkeys were probably lured by bait used by Europeans and captured. What did Bruegel feel watching the exotic animals submitting to their fate and being chained to an iron ring on a narrow windowsill?
During Bruegel’s era, the Netherlands and Belgium lost their sovereignty to Spain and had to endure the harsh tyranny. Protestants who fought for independence or stood against Catholicism were either arrested or executed. Not all of them, however, resisted the Spanish rule. There must have been some natives who conformed to or even defended the colonial rule.
In Christian culture, monkeys represent greed, sin, and stupidity. Bruegel’s “Two Monkeys” is an allegory, where the monkeys represent those who have given up their freedom for the sake of immediate food and comfort. It is a warning that those who do not resist tyranny and stay greedy are no different from the poor monkeys.