Puzzling Proverbial Politics

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It doesn’t matter what the puzzle is: clicking that last piece into any wooden jigsaw puzzle is supremely gratifying.

Puzzle season is upon us! We are trading them amongst ourselves as we did last winter, and emailing each other images of which one we might buy this year. In our informal club each household seems willing to contribute one puzzle per winter. I borrowed this one from a friend none of us suspected had puzzles. “Netherlandish Proverbs,” a 16th century oil-on-oak painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder, depicts Dutch proverbs of the time.

Artifact Puzzles includes a key to 60 of the sayings, several of which (To cast pearls before swine) are familiar to me, and many brand new to me seem particularly relevant to our times, like To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ.

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Pieter Breughel’s “Netherlandish Proverbs” as rendered by Artifact Puzzles. The painting is 400 years older than I am. The proverbs… timeless.

Our favored wooden jigsaw puzzle maker is Liberty Puzzles in Boulder, but Artifact will do in a pinch. I’ve only done two, and I don’t like them as well because they have fewer whimsy pieces, and the cut of their pieces isn’t as intricate or interesting.

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Whimsy pieces in the two Artifact puzzles I’ve done are both fewer and less intricate than in Liberty puzzles.

Liberty puzzles trick you on the edges; Artifact puzzles differ in the nature of the deceit. While  all of the edge pieces look like edge pieces, there were at least seven corner pieces in this puzzle, and numerous flat-edged pieces that are not edges, that abut each other various places in the center of the puzzle.

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The painting’s original title was “The Blue Cloak,” from the proverb “She puts the blue cloak on her husband,” meaning she deceives him. Notice the three pieces in the upper right, where one seeming-corner meets two seeming-edge pieces. This particular trickery seems unique to the Artifact brand.

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“To carry the day out in baskets” means to waste one’s time, as some might think I am, doing these puzzles.

Last winter I sat at my table on a cold afternoon and a neighbor crept inside the front door without knocking, without calling first, without the dogs noticing his arrival. In the second after we all heard the front door squeak, they crashed open the door to the mudroom nearly smashing it into his face. “What are you up to?” he asked, then peered over my shoulder. “You’ve got too much time on your hands,” he said. I was alarmed by his entry and annoyed by his judgement.

These wooden jigsaw puzzles are a meditation for me. The mental agility required to assemble them gives several aspects of my brain good exercise, pattern recognition, color discernment, and memory top among them. Then the image itself offers another layer of awareness: is it a classic painting, like this one, or a Hiroshige waterfall? Or is it a contemporary image, is it an antique print (and of what? butterflies, or a historic locomotive?), does it conform to a rectangular shape or take the organic shape of a jaguar; and what thoughts does that image stir, what feelings, both when I first see it, and as I move through the pieces over time? There is never nothing to think about when working one of these beautiful puzzles, each a work of art in its own right.

And it affords, above all, the gift of concentration. For while my mind may roam pondering proverbs, or mulling mythology while assembling a mermaid, or considering the effects of climate change on the Netherlands, or the plight of jaguars; while a memory may be sparked by a porpoise-shaped whimsy piece or a prairie dog (or is that a meerkat?), the rest of the world falls away. The mind is given the exercise it loves, and the spirit is free to to untether and rest beyond thought, observing the layers the mind plies while it fits together cleverly cut pieces of wood and color.

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“To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ” meaning to hide deceit with Christian piety. The proverb feels relevant to our current situation on several levels. Beyond the obvious, it tells us that 16th century Christians clearly did not see Jesus as a blond man, touching off in me thoughts about racism, xenophobia, and hypocrisy. 

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Five proverbs listed on the puzzle key are represented here, and at least one more discerned only from researching the painting online.

The central proverb in this image is To be unable to see the sun shine on the water, meaning to be jealous of another’s success. The fellow above is throwing money into water, i.e., wasting it. To his left, the bottoms poking out a hole in the planks represent a couple of proverbs, one stated on the puzzle key, It hangs like a privy over a ditch: it is obvious; and one uncovered hereThey both crap through the same hole, meaning they are inseparable comrades. Heehee! Under the privy (and the money) is Big fish eat little fish, meaning that whatever people say will be put in perspective according to their level of importance, or “Those in power have the power.” This makes me squirm a little as I consider the looming transfer of power in Our Nation’s Capital. Add to that the crumbling brick wall, A wall with cracks will soon collapse, or Anything poorly managed will soon fail…

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“To have the roof tiled with tarts” meaning to be very wealthy. Perhaps soon the White House will be tiled with tarts. Hmmm. At whose expense?

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While doing the puzzle, I noticed a few images not identified on the key, like this fellow kneeling at a fire, so I looked up the painting online. The central proverb here is “To not care whose house is on fire as long as one can warm oneself at the blaze,” meaning to take every opportunity regardless of the consequences to others. Hmmm. 

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Like the above man at fire, the fellow “sitting on hot coals” wasn’t in the key either. He is being impatient. Above him is one “catching fish without a net,” meaning he profits from the work of others. 

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“To bang one’s head against a brick wall.” We all know what that means!

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The details of expression in the painting are particularly well captured with this poor, morose boy. “He who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again,” or as I learned it, don’t cry over spilled milk: what’s done cannot be undone.

“Netherlandish Proverbs” was a fast, fun and thought-provoking puzzle, however burdened with nincompoops. I’m glad to have passed it on. I look forward to the beauty, surprise, and complexity of the next puzzle, next year, something bright and wild and full of life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Puzzling Proverbial Politics

  1. Oh how fun was this! I remember the first time I saw one of your beautiful wood pieced puzzles. I had never seen anything like it. Makes me want to get one, as the memory part of my brain is in dire need of some puzzling decisions to exercise that part of my brain. Loved all the proverbs and how relevant they are now which says so much about human nature. Again thanks Rita.

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