This painting is remarkable in being the earliest known dated work by Pieter Brueghel II. It is also of particular interest as the only known example of the composition by the artist.
The composition derives, as so often with the younger Brueghel's work, from a lost work of his father, Pieter Bruegel I. Whether that prototype was a painting or drawing is unknown, however, its existence is known only through a group of three engravings of 1642 by Henricus Hondius (see figs. 1-3). These divide the principle figures of the composition into three groups (in reverse), and are accompanied by a description of the events depicted: Vertooninge Hoe de Pelgerimmen, op s. Ians-dagh, buyten Brussel, tot Meulenbeeck danssen moeten, ende als sy over dese Brugh gedanst hebben, ofte gedwongen werden op desevolgende maniere, dan schijnen sy, voor een Iaer, van de vallende Sieckte, genesen te zijn ['Images of How the pilgrims, on Saint John's Day, outside Brussels, have to dance their way to Meulenbeeck, where, either willingly or forced, have to cross the bridge there, and they will be healed from disease for a year'].
Hondius' text then goes on to describe the various elements of the scene, and attribute the composition to 'den uytnemenden konstigen Schilder Pieter Breugel'. One might suppose, from that, that Hondius was accurately reflecting three separate compositions by Breugel (two of the engravings are also inscribed individually 'P. Breugel inv' and 'P.B. inv'). However, crucially Hondius' text also refers to how 'ende dan komen de Huyslieden van dier plaets, haer lavende, ende wat warms in-gevende [And then the villagers arrive who live near the bridge, and they provide the group with something to drink and something warm to eat]'. This evidently refers to the two figures in the present composition walking just beyond the foreground procession, with bowls of food, and strongly suggests that they were included in the image from which Hondius was working. If that is the case, then - especially given Pieter II's regular practice of copying his father's compositions - it is likely that Pieter I's prototype was of more or less the present composition and that Hondius himself divided that for his series of engravings.
The undivided composition is known in four other works: three fairly precise drawings in the Graphische Sammlung of the Albertina, Vienna, the Prentenkabinet of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and the Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatliche Museen, Berlin; and a much looser sketch recorded in the Witt Library as being in a collection in Grenoble. In addition there is a painting of the foreground figures only, recorded as being in the collection of F. Bouché, Brussels, 1972. In the first three examples, the figure of a man on crutches appears in the centre background; absent from the present painting and also the Grenoble sketch, the figure reappears in one of Hondius' engravings, suggesting that the first three drawings were taken from Bruegel's original rather than from the present work, whereas the Grenoble sketch was made after the present work (the latter hypothesis is supported by the inclusion in only that drawing of the dancers in the right background, absent from the first three drawings and, by inference, Bruegel's prototype).
The stylistic similarities of the Vienna, Amsterdam and Berlin drawings would seem to suggest that Bruegel's prototype was also a drawing rather than a painting (although in the absence of the original this must remain an assumption), in which case the Brussels painting is almost certainly a partial copy after the present work; the prominent rushes in both paintings, absent from any of the drawings, supports such a conclusion. That Bruegel was a witness to the events in the composition, specifically on the Feast of the Nativity of the Baptist in 1564 (as recorded by the inscription on the Vienna drawings, probably recording one on the original), and that his prototype was either a sketch drawn from life or based on his first-hand experience, is not only possible, but also likely.
The annual procession of epileptics on the Feast Day of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist was a real historical occurrence. The type of condition seems to have been some form (or indeed maybe a number of diffferent types) of dyskinesia (it is debatable whether it was the same as the present day St. Vitus' Dance) that first appeared in the later fourteenth century in a number of mass outbreaks, of which the first was in Aachen on 24 June 1374. The association with Saint John derived from his being the Patron saint of epileptics, and his therefore being invoked for aid by sufferers and spectators; a parallel association also existed with Saint Vitus, and both names for the disease are found in early sources, although the latter's proved the more enduring. Dancers would often also be accompanied by musicians as it was believed at that the order of music could heal both body and soul (scholars such as Adam Milligan touted music as a cure for the ailments of society as well, imbuing it with the power to restrain social vices). Seizures and fits would often thus be treated by playing music in an attempt to control the erratic spasms and gyrations of the dancers.
That the composition reflected a real location is indicated by the inscriptions on the Amsterdam and Vienna drawings, as well as Hondius' text. However, the identity of the church as that of St. John in Molenbeeck (which was destroyed in 1578) was only confirmed by Antoon-Willem Maurissen in his Bijdrage tot de geschiedenis van Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Puurs, 1980, pp. 155-6. The apppearance of the sixteenth-century church is recorded in three early sources: a military map produced by Jacob van Deventer for the Emperor Charles V in 1550-4 (De atlas van de Steden van de Nederlanden in de XVI de eeuw; Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Ms.22090); in a drawing by Anthonis van den Wyngaerde of 1558 depicting a Panoramic view of Brussels from the north-east (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, inv. no. C.LG.IV.46b); and historcally in a document of 1663 describing the Church of Saint-Géry in Brussels (Brussels, Algemeen Rijksarchief, Notariaat, no. 2685). From those, Maurissen was able to show that the church accords with the depiction in the present painting, and was also able to suggest that the water in the foreground is the pond to the south-west of the church known as the Etangs Noirs.
Although the picture was published by Dr. Klaus Ertz in 2000 as a non-autograph work, on the basis of photographs (see literature), he has since inspected the original and confirmed the attribution and its place as the earliest known dated work by the artist. Sold with a certificate by Dr. Klaus Ertz, dated 15 June 2007.