BRUEGEL, Pieter the Elder
(b. ca. 1525, Brogel, d. 1569, Brussel)

Dulle Griet (Mad Meg)

c. 1562
Oil on wood, 117,4 x 162 cm
Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp

This painting was mentioned by Carel van Mander in 1604 in his 'Schilderboeck'. He described the principal character of the painting as 'a Mad Meg pillaging at the mouth of Hell / seemingly perplexed / and cruelly and strangely attired', an evil and fearsome woman or witch. Van Mander remained vague about the actual significance of the painting. Perhaps it had already been forgotten by his time. We can be certain, however, that Bruegel gave the work a hidden allegorical or religious meaning, albeit one that remains a mystery. A great many experts have devoted their energies to solving the problem, but none has ever succeeded entirely in explaining the painting. Most of them focus on the possible symbolism of the large woman in the foreground, with her suit of armor, sword, cutlery and money-box. She has been variously interpreted as a symbol of heresy or violence, the personification of hum,an evil and an allegory of instability.

Recently it was proposed that Meg symbolizes Madness, a vice taken in the 16th century to include insanity, rage, gluttony, lust, avarice and ambition, and that the giant figure in the centre of the painting is an allegory of Folly. The additional scenes surrounding the two figures illustrate the causes and repercussions of these two human failings. It was concluded that Bruegel's allegory was intended as an attack on both human nature and the political and religious situation in 16th-century Antwerp.

We could fill a book with suggested interpretations of Mad Meg and it is highly doubtful whether it would bring the viewer any closer to the true meaning of the painting. Nevertheless, the work never fails to fascinate, even without specialist knowledge. No one can fail to appreciate its apocalyptic vision. For that reason, it has also been plausibly interpreted as the Breaking of the Seventh Seal, as recounted in the Book of Revelations. Mad Meg is, indeed, reminiscent of the book of the Apocalypse.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.