The Threat of Feminine Power and Madness in Bruegel’s Dulle Griet

By Samantha P.

 In 1568, a book of proverbs  was published in Antwerp, containing the claim that “One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market, four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon” (Roberts). This proverb, especially when considered next to the Bruegel’s Dulle Griet (above), reflects a number of the concerns about women existent within the Renaissance population. Categories of human identification were arbitrarily defined, placing different bodies within a different status depending on by whom and from which angle they were examined. Renaissance art, especially paintings, examined some of these anxieties.

Notably Dulle Griet draws together an army of atypical women and a group of demons pouring from the mouth of hell. The figure of the demon is not only an entity related with an excess of feminine power, but, even more significantly, it is a being that crosses the lines between human and animal. Demons are generally pictured as humanoid figures with animal qualities in physical body, and they are strongly associated with witches–women who exchange sexual intercourse with these demons for otherworldly powers.  Dulle Griet, or “Mad Meg”, is a woman allegedly in possession of “otherworldly” powers. Bruegel’s central figure has been assigned several identities from Flemish folklore: the figure of Fortune, another the “personification of covetousness,” and the “quarrelsome woman”  (Sullivan, 55). She in undeniably masculinized, and is clearly surrounded by an army of demons at the mouth of hell.

In folklore, the figure was called “Gret Sauermal,” and she was a woman who argued with her husband and could visit the gates of hell only to come out unscathed, perhaps due to her shrewish and quarrelsome ways (Hagen, 182). She does not fall within the realm of proper womanhood due to her behavior, but is also masculinized through the wearing of armor traditionally made for men. Meg is not the only figure in the painting that rejects the expected roles for women, however. There are other Flemish phrases personified such as the woman tying the devil to a cushion, which means that the woman is brave, domineering, or both (Hagen, 182).

This becomes an issue of faith because of the use of demonic figures instead of simply using animals to represent a lower symbol of status as well as the use of powerful women. In reality, the men were the domineering ones, leading to powerful women being construed as witches. Craftswomen were ousted by their trades, and with advances of science, healing became a man’s pursuit. The women in this painting seem to be the personification of the anxiety that women might gain too much power and get out of hand. Remember, “No one causes more harm to the Catholic faith than the midwives (Hagen, 183).”

All of the women in this painting are acting outside of the expected realm of women. They exhibit a greater power, an elevation of self, not only above the men that should be controlling them, but above animals and animal-human hybrids as represented by the demons. These are the women that can march up to the mouth of hell and walk away unscathed. These are the women that can fight against the devil and win, giving the women in this painting a frightening power that upsets the already problematic definitions of human and animal, or even the status of different human bodies. There is no status in this image, only chaos at the hands of women with too much power.

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Images:  Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dulle Griet, circa 1562. (Currently exhibited at Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp.)

Hagen, Rose-Marie, and Rainier.  What Great Paintings Say.  Vol 2. Koln: Taschen, 2003.

Roberts, Keith. Bruegel. London: Phaidon, 1971.

Sullivan, Margaret A. “Madness and Folly: Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Dulle Griet.” The Art Bulletin 59:1 (1977), 55-66.

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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

2 responses to “The Threat of Feminine Power and Madness in Bruegel’s Dulle Griet

  • In pursuit of Bruegel in Brussels and Antwerp | That's How The Light Gets In

    […] and taught that they were less perfect than men.  All of which leads Miranda Nesler, in ‘The Threat of Feminine Power and Madness in Bruegel’s Dulle Griet‘, to the following […]

  • Gertrude M

    A more recent interpretation of this painting is the realization, albeit perhaps packaged in fear and repugnance by the artist, that the women descend into hell to retrieve the treasures of mankind that have been looted and squandered. In other words, woman restores the dignity of humanity – often by force.

    The women are pictured as normal females normally dressed, and they are mostly focused on disposing of the hoarding demons rather than “looting.” The goods which they are recovering are recognizable products of man’s labor rather than raw materials or the gleaming wealth of fantasy.

    This is an interpretation that is both accurate and a (possibly underhanded) compliment to the traditional role of women in relationships and society.

    Personally, as a woman, I find this painting to be inspirational.

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