Mad Meg by Pieter Bruegel the Elder | Antwerp, Museum Mayer van den Bergh

Arts & Sciences
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Mad Meg

Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the Renaissance

A mad woman with armour and sword leads a robber band of women among the most grotesque monsters towards the open mouth of hell: in 1563 Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted a panel that still speaks to the imagination.

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In 1894 the Antwerp art-collector Fritz Mayer bought a striking, but to him unknown painting. It turned out to be a masterpiece by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1563. The title Dulle Griet (Mad Margaret or Mad Meg) is taken from the Schilderboek (Painters’ Book, 1604) by Karel van Mander. He called Bruegel a follower of Hieronymus Boschpopular painter a number of generations before Bruegel, known mainly for his fantasy creatures and monsters. , since he also painted ‘ghostly scenes and pranks’. Indeed, the painting combines a very dark scene with humoristic details.

Bruegel is mostly known for his peasant scenes and depictions of proverbs. Mad Meg proves he was more versatile. His relatively small preserved oeuvre also includes large religious paintings and wintry or sunlit landscapes. All his works testify to a sharp sense of observation. No other 16th-century painter gives one the feeling of coming closer to the people of those times.

Toren van Babel.

Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563. In Bruegel’s Tower of Babel the harbour town is based on Antwerp. The tower itself is inspired by the Colosseum in Rome. The central theme of the painting, as in the Biblical story of the Babylonians, is pride.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the Renaissance

Bruegel the Elder is the best-known painter of the 16th century Low Countries. Yet we do not know much with certainty about his life. He was perhaps born in about 1525/1530 near Breda and moved to Antwerp in the late 1540s.

Bruegel painted for customers from the economic, religious and intellectual elite. He often produced landscapes with lots of figures, such as celebrating or working peasants. They are busy sowing and harvesting, eating and drinking. As an artist he gained recognition through his prints, disseminated by printer-publishers who reached a wide public with new techniques. Today his works count among the masterpieces in the museum collections from Antwerp and Brussels to Vienna and New York.

Bruegel was an odd man out in his time. His style and themes are not really typical of the (Italian) Renaissance, which was becoming popular in the Low Countries. In the Renaissance, literally ‘rebirth’, artists were inspired by themes from Classical antiquity. Bruegel knew Italian art through his travels as a young painter, but he diverged both in style and choice of subject. Other 16th-century painters like Quinten Metsijs, Jan Gossaert and Frans Floris were much closer to the tradition of the Italian masters like Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. They were mostly based in Antwerp, in the 16th century the artistic centre of the Low Countries.

Focal points

Basel, Kunstmuseum

‘I, Catarina van Hemessen, have painted myself in 1548, aged 20’. The earliest known self-portrait of an artist (m/f) at an easel.

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Women in the Art World

In a travelogue about the Low Countries from 1567 the Italian writer and merchant Lodovico Guicciardini mentioned a number of strikingly independent women, including some ‘excellent women painters’. That surprised him, at a time when women could seldom become artists. Catharina van Hemessen from Antwerp was even famous enough to be invited to the Spanish court in Madrid. Susanna Horenbout from Ghent worked in the service of the king of England.

Another woman with considerable influence in the 16th-century artistic milieu was Mayken Verhulst from Mechelen. She was herself a painter and a businesswoman. After the death of her husband, the painter and engraver Pieter Coecke van Aalst, she headed his workshop for decades. She published books containing his prints, but also works by Italian authors on architecture in the Renaissance. Her daughter Maria married Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Mayken survived them both and gave drawing lessons to her grandsons Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel.

In the flourishing 16th-century art world, then, energetic and talented women also operated, although they did not get the chances they deserved. For example, they could only enjoy an artistic training if their father or brother was an artist. Nevertheless, they sometimes distinguished themselves as discerning dealers in prints.

Volcxken Diericx

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB-67.071

Portrait of Volcxken Diericx by Jan Wierix (1579). For decades, with her husband Hieronymus Cock, Volcxken Diericx ran the most important print business in the Low Countries.

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The Influence of Print-Making

Prints occupy a less prominent place in art history than paintings, sculptures or architecture. Yet for centuries prints were for most people the principal way in which they came into contact with art.

The invention of book-printing in the 15th century made it possible to produce prints cheaply and in large numbers. Artists like the German Albrecht Dürer or the Antwerp brothers Jan and Hieronymus Wierix specialised in the engraving of drawings on wood, copper or other materials.

In the 16th century, thanks to advanced techniques, creative entrepreneurs applied themselves specifically to the publishing of prints. Hieronymus Cock, for example, with his wife Volcxken Diericx in Antwerp, ran the successful printshop ‘In de vier winden’ (In the Four Winds). They sold prints of paintings by Italian masters, but Bruegel also made sixty designs for them. Biblical scenes, depictions of saints, portraits of monarchs and popular scenes, circulated in great numbers. From the 16th century on prints were an important weapon in the religious and political battle of ideas.

De geldwisselaar en zijn vrouw
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Quinten Metsijs, The Money-Changer and his Wife, 1514.

Neptunus en Amphitrite.
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie

Jan Gossaert, Neptunus and Amphitrite, 1516. Gossaert travelled to Rome and brought home with him the new thinking of the Renaissance. His themes are often taken from Greek and Roman mythology. He was one of the first painters in the Low Countries to depict life-size nude figures.

Processie van Sultan Süleyman.
New York City, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pieter Coecke van Aelst (after), Procession of Sultan Süleyman at the Atmeidan in Constantinople, 1553. After Van Aelst’s death, his widow, Mayken Verhulst, published prints of drawings he had made on a visit to Constantinople in 1533.

De kopergravure Grote vissen eten de kleine vissen op (1557), door Pieter Bruegel de Oude ontworpen voor Hiëronymus Cock.
Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Museum Plantin-Moretus, PK.OP. 13802; III/h,62

The copper engraving Big fish eat the small ones up (1557), designed by Pieter Bruegel the Elder for Hiëronymus Cock.

Pieter II Brueghel spreekwoorden.
Antwerp, KMSKA Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Collection Flemish Community, photo Hugo Maertens

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Dutch Proverbs, 1595. Copy from his father’s painting of 1559. In Bruegel’s time works of art based on proverbs were a popular way of highlighting human stupidity. This version shows that the painting was so well-known that it was copied at an early date.

De Dulle Griet is ook de titel van een Suske en Wiske-stripverhaal van Willy Vandersteen (1966). In dat album wil professor Barabas de figuren op de Dulle Griet tot leven wekken, om te achterhalen waarom deze mensen in oorlog waren. Het album werd in meer dan twintig talen vertaald.
Antwerp, Standaard Uitgeverij (@ 2023), Willy Vandersteen

De Dulle Griet is also the title of one of the immensely popular Suske and Wiske comic books by Willy Vandersteen (1966). In that album Professor Barabas wants to bring the figures in the painting to life, to find out why they were at war. The album was translated into over twenty languages.

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Hier spreekt men Nederlands

Bron: VRT archief – 30 jan 1960

Dulle Griet
Museum Tour – Museum Mayer van den Bergh

Bron: VRT archief – 19 okt 2020


Ainsworth Maryan, Alsteens Stijn & Orenstein Nadine
Mens, mythe en zinnelijkheid: de renaissance van Jan Gossart: het volledige werk

Mercatorfonds, 2010. 

Bassens Maarten & Van Grieken Jonas
Bruegel in zwart en wit: het complete grafische werk

KBR, 2019. 

Büttner Nils
Bruegel: de schilder van boeren en heiligen

Meulenhoff, 2019. 

Haemers Jelle, Bardyn Andrea & Delameillieure Chanelle (red.)
Wijvenwereld. Vrouwen in de middeleeuwse stad

Vrijdag, 2019. 

Hendrikman Lars & Tamis Dorien
Brueghel en tijdgenoten: kunst als verborgen verzet?

Waanders Uitgevers, 2021. 

Huet Leen
Mevrouw Renaissance, of: Het leven en werk van stammoeder Brueghel

EPO, 2019. 

Huet Leen
Pieter Bruegel: de biografie

Polis, 2016. 

Lampo Jan
Gelukkige stad: de gouden jaren van Antwerpen (1485-1585)

Amsterdam University Press, 2017. 

Lampsonius Dominicus
Portretten van bekende schilders uit de Lage Landen

Polis, 2020. 

Op De Beeck Jan
Mayken Verhulst (1518-1599). De Turkse manieren van een artistieke dame

Museum Het Zotte Kunstkabinet, 2005.  

Pye Michael
Antwerpen. De gloriejaren

De Bezige Bij, 2021. 

Vanderheyden Thaïs
Grote kunst voor kleine kenners: de Vlaamse Meesters

Borgerhoff & Lamberigts, 2019. (9+) 

Van der Stighelen Katlijne
Vrouwenstreken. Onvergetelijke schilderessen uit de Lage Landen

Lannoo, 2000. 

Van der Stighelen Katlijne & Westen Mirjam (red.)
Elck zijn waerom: vrouwelijke kunstenaars in België en Nederland 1500-1950

Ludion, 1999. 

Van Grieken Joris, Luijten Ger & Van Der Stock Jan
Hieronymus Cock: de renaissance in prent

Mercatorfonds, 2013.



De Kockere Geert & Cneut Carll
Dulle Griet

De Eenhoorn, 2017. (8+) 

Olyslaegers Jeroen

De Bezige Bij, 2022. 

Timmermans Felix
Pieter Bruegel zo heb ik u uit uw werken geroken

Davidsfonds, 1990. 

Van Der Laak Maartje & De Bode Ann
Het geheim van de Vlaamse Meesters

De Eenhoorn, 2019. (9+) 

Vandersteen Willy
De Avonturen van Suske en Wiske: Het Spaanse Spook (nr. 70)

Standaard, 1952. 

Vandersteen Willy
Suske en Wiske: De dulle griet (nr. 78)

Standaard, 1966.