Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Interpretation of Netherlandish Renaissance Religious Painting

Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Mad Meg (Dulle Griet)
By Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Seen as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) (c.1562)


Interpretation/Meaning of Mad Meg (Dulle Griet)
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Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69)
Medium: Oil on wood panel
Genre: Fantasy religious painting
Movement: Netherlandish Renaissance
Location: Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp.

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Interpretation of Mad Meg (Dulle Griet)

One of three nightmarish panel paintings produced by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the style of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) - the two others being The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), and The Triumph of Death (1562, Museo del Prado, Madrid) - Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) is one of the greatest Renaissance paintings of Northern Europe. It was referred to in Lives of the Netherlandish Painters (Het Schilderboeck, Amsterdam 1604) by Karel van Mander, who described the composition's main character - an armoured witch-like figure armed with a sword, cutlery and money-box - as: "a Mad Meg pillaging at the mouth of Hell", although he gave no clue as to the narrative or meaning of the picture, which art historians have debated ever since. There is a madcap, topsy turvy feeling to this apocalyptic work of religious art, personified by the deranged Griet who returns from (or advances toward) the mouth of Hell. Some art scholars have interpreted the work as the Breaking of the Seventh Seal, as foretold in the Book of Revelations - the last book of the New Testament. The work belongs to the Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp. For the world's greatest collection of oil paintings by Bruegel, see the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.



Mad Meg

One of the most inventive images of the Northern Renaissance, Mad Meg is perhaps the most Bosch-like composition by Bruegel, at least at first glance. There are monsters, demons, a wild melee of ruins, ships, weird towers and caves, and conflagrations, whereever you look. But the resemblance fades somewhat as one observes more closely. First of all there is the truly predominant figure, the Dulle Griet or Mad Meg, who is quite alien to Bosch's imagination. She is worse than Hell itself. In fact, she may have just emerged from Hell victorious, laden with loot, and ready for other conquests which we can only imagine. While other, minor hags, crowd the bridge which Mad Meg has just left behind, in a wild contest for the coins that a Bosch-like monster sitting on the roof of a house shovels down to them from his behind, Mad Meg strides on in contemptuous isolation, with the wild stare of the true fanatic armed for combat, a formidible shrew who has reduced the monsters of Hell to puny little nincompoops brandishing their armour in pathetically harmless gestures. She is greed personified, a truly capital sinner and, not unlike the designs which Bruegel had just previously engraved in The Vices (1556-57), Mad Meg is a symbol of disaster such as disorder, heresy or violence.

Sins and Satan

Beside greed, many other sins populate this Hell. The meaning of some of the monsters, animals, birds, and objects is just as difficult to identify as it is in paintings by Bosch, but gluttony, vanity, and unchastity, are more or less clearly characterised. Most impressive is Bruegel's vision as Satan as an enormous whale-like demon, still reminiscent of the traditional 'Mouth of Hell' but now conceived as an impassive tool rather than a violent agent of destruction - so impassive and stupid in fact that its horrible face and horrified eye have themselves become the victim of a special brand of parasites. This concept had already been fully developed in a composition known to us from Bruegel's original drawing in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and from an engraving of 1556 published by Hieronymus Cock, strangely without Bruegel's name.

The Bosch-like character of the picture is quite evident from the detail. Its monsters and its magnificent fiery colour palette are familiar from the older master's representations of Hell, particularly of that on the right-hand panel of Bosch's Haywain Triptych (1500, Prado Museum, Madrid). But Bruegel has endowed the scene with greater vigour, which while lacking in Bosch's lyrical charm, produces a level of reality which fits the different character of the picture to perfection. The more three-dimensional forms of the buildings and other objects such as the big bowl with the soldiers, the bell and the flag, the soldiers themselves and the monsters, make them appear more absurb and more foolish than any of Bosch's, and more appropriate to the protangonist of the painting, which is, afterall, not Satan but Mad Meg.

Bruegel belonged to the progressive-minded intelligentsia of Flanders, and thus his paintings typically contain a moralistic commentary on social affairs. Here, the allegory of Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) is believed to have been designed as a comment on the uncertain political and religious situation in 16th-century Antwerp, and a warning of what might happen should events get out of control. The Tower of Babel (1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) was another work that contained a clear warning of what disasters might befall Antwerp should its rapid expansion continue unchecked.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Bruegel was the most original, inventive and influential of all Flemish painters during the 16th century. In addition to apocalyptic imagery, like Mad Meg (Dulle Griet), he produced a number of innovative Biblical works - including: Massacre of the Innocents (1564, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna); The Census of Bethlehem (1566, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), and Parable of the Blind (1568, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples) - landscapes such as the Hunters in the Snow (c.1565, K.M., Vienna), and genre paintings including Netherlandish Proverbs (1559, Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin), Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559, K.M., Vienna), Children's Games (1560, K.M., Vienna), The Wedding Dance (1566, Detroit Institute of Arts), The Land of Cockaigne (1567, Alte Pinakothek, Munich), The Peasant Dance (c.1568, KM, Vienna), The Peasant Wedding (c.1567, K.M., Vienna) and The Beggars (1568, Louvre, Paris).



More Information

For more about Flemish painting, see the following articles:

Northern Renaissance Artists (c.1400-1580)
Jan van Eyck (c.1390-1441)
Roger van der Weyden (c.1398-1464)

• For more about 16th century panel painting, see our main index: Homepage.

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