Bruegel’s earliest biographer, Karel van Mander, writing in 1604, described the painting as ‘Dulle Griet, who is looking at the mouth of Hell’. Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) was a term of disparagement given to any bad-tempered, shrewish woman – a hell-cat. In the words of a popular Flemish proverb, ‘She could plunder in front of hell and return unscathed’.
At first sight, Bruegel seems simply to be making fun of noisy, aggressive women. Yet the more you look, the more layered the possible meanings. Meg is human, certainly no demon. Sword in hand,she is gathering up plates, pots and pans. Behind her, other women loot a house, as Meg advances towards the mouth of Hell through a landscape populated by monsters, representing the sins that are punished there. Interestingly, the devilish figures, where their sex can be identified at all, are male. Some are being tied by women to cushions. ‘To tie a...
oil on panel