the Elder

1525 - 1569


Peasants, Fools and Demons


Renaissance Art Map
Pieter Bruegel the Elder  Peasants, Fools and Demons
    A Brief Life in Dangerous Times
    Antwerp: a Booming City
    The Holy Family in the Snow
    Exploring the World
    Demons in Our Midst
    Village Life
    Nature as Man's Environment
    Not only Peasants
    Pieter the Droll?
    Life and Work






Demons in Our Midst





Philip Galle
Attributed to after Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Alchemist
c. 1558




The painter has also assembled the figures of the underworld around Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (c. 1562), a traditional figure in Flanders who - also known as "Gret Sourpuss" - was always quarrelling with her husband or - under the name of "Black Gret" - passed herself off as Queen in the place of her mistress. Bruegel has depicted her as the embodiment of aggressive miserliness. Sword in hand, she is gathering up plates, pots and pans. The painter has turned upside down all the rulesgoverning the pleasing presentation of women: no smile touches her lips; no hair plays about her brow; her skinappears dull; her toothless mouth hangs open; her clothes are shabby; her armour does not contribute to the elegance of her bust, but simply hangs in front of her belly. And instead of turning gracefully towards the observer, she is running past him with leaden steps, seeking to bring her booty to a safe place.
Yet she remains a human; she is no demon. The same is equally true of the women behind her. The devilish figures in this picture, in those few cases where their sex can be identified at all, are male. Their visors lowered, they are coming out from under the bridge, and are being tied by the women to cushions. "To tie a devil to a pillow" means to cope with the devil in question, or with a man.
Everything in the picture is the opposite of what it should be. The head which serves as the entrance to Hell has a board as its eyelid; its skin is made up of stones; a tree is growing out of its ear - the painter is repeatedly blending plant, animal, human, organic and inorganic elements. The mouth of Hell is part of a living creature and simultaneously an enclosed space; the crown on the forehead of Hell is simultaneously a wall with battlements; the eyebrows are comprised of jugs. It is a topsy-turvy world. The Divine order has no validity here. A hellish wall of fire blazes on the horizon.
Bruegel's first biographer, while providing us with information regarding the traditional figure, gives us no hint as to whether the painter was seeking to comment upon woman's position in contemporary society. From today's point of view, she was underprivileged. Her father and husband decided what was to be done with her property, while she was ousted from one of her most important occupational fields, that of popular medicine, by the university medicine practised by men. Only too often were midwives and "wise women" the victims of witch trials. Women were also underprivileged with respect to the Church, which expected them to be silent and considered them less perfect than man (who had been created first) and burdened by Eve's legacy as the eternal temptress. Though the women in this picture are stronger than the male half-beasts, they neither triumph nor exactly attract the observer's sympathy. It is unlikely that Bruegel intended any more than the creation of an aggressive, demonic environment for a traditional figure.



Dulle Griet (Mad Meg)
c. 1562

Bruegel has depicted a traditional figure as the embodiment of aggressive greed. She is running towards the gaping jaws of Hell, demons are raising a drawbridge, and we are left to guess whether Dulle Griet is seeking to bring her booty to a safe place or to conquer Hell.



Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (detail)
c. 1562


Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (detail)
c. 1562


La tentazione di S.Antonio


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