Go to Hell

Discovering the meaning of ancient art


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It’s been 450 years since Pieter Breugel the Elder painted the famous “Dulle Griet,” and still no one can agree what the painting is about. In the center of the mad surreal Boschian landscape is Dulle Griet — in English, “Mad Meg” — a homely peasant woman from Flemish folklore, wearing the armor of a soldier. In her left hand she carries a cloth bag and a couple of baskets filled to spilling with kitchen items; tucked under her armpit is a small chest. In her free hand, she holds a long sword pointed at the mouth of Hell.


All around Dulle Griet, hellfires burn through the landscape, a city in ruin. There is an infestation of egg-shaped little creatures. One such creature is dancing merrily on a burning rooftop in the background. In front of Dulle Griet is another egg-shaped creature with, I believe, a spoon inserted handle-first into its anus, which is also, possibly, its mouth. Behind Dulle Griet, an army of peasant women beat away invaders (demons? soldiers?). There’s a story here, with a moral. There’s always a moral amidst hellfire. But what is it?

Most of what we know about Breugel comes from Carel van Mander, the 17th-century historian of Dutch art. In his Schilder-boeck, van Mander wrote of Breugel, “He made a Dulle Griet, who is stealing something to take to Hell.” But other have translated this same passage as, “Dulle Griet who loots in front of Hell.” Still others believe that Dulle Griet is preparing to pillage Hell itself for more booty.

The original religious interpretation of Dulle Griet is the one we broadly understand today: “Dulle Griet” is meant to be a denunciation of Greed. There is Dulle Griet with all her stuff, ready to pillage even Hell for more. Feminist interpreters have seen Dulle Griet as a depiction of male anxiety over what Simon Schama in The Embarrassment of Riches calls “the unmediated female,” leading men into Hell with her “lust for shopping, a relish for malicious gossip, an uncontrollable temper, [and] unseemly cravings for rich, sweet food and strong drink.” In Breugel’s day, “griet” was the name for a scolding, shrewish woman. Some say Dulle Griet is a personification of the Flemish proverb, “She could plunder in front of hell and remain unscathed.” Your feelings about women in general will determine whether you think the proverb is a celebration or condemnation of female strength.

Bertold Brecht’s Marxist appropriation of Dulle Griet for his Mother Courage kept Breugel’s critique of Greed, but he turned Dulle Griet into a tragic heroine, a victim of capitalist warmongers (as well as her own iniquities). Set in the 17th century, the play follows Mother Courage as she makes her way through war-torn Europe during the height of the Thirty Years’ War. Like Dulle Griet, she is laden with stuff and carts her things across battlefields, determined to profit from the war that eventually takes her three children. In this interpretation, Dulle Griet is a failure both as a mother and as a profiteer. In other words, she is not only a bad woman but a bad robber. 

You can see Bruegel’s “Dulle Griet” at the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp. I recommend going shortly after lunch, when the streets of Antwerp are at their busiest, though it has been 500 years since you could call any street in Antwerp bustling. When I lived in Antwerp, in 2010, I made it a habit to visit the city’s museums repeatedly and often. The Museum of Fritz Mayer van den Bergh was my favorite. Fritz Mayer van den Bergh was not himself an extraordinary man, nor even particularly artistic. He was born into a wealthy Flemish family in 1858 and was all set for a career in diplomacy when, in 1879, his father died, and van den Bergh decided that, after all, he did not want to work in diplomacy or any profession. He was going to live with his mother, he decided. He would not marry and he would spend his time collecting art. He didn’t really know anything about art, it seems, didn’t befriend artists and collect their work, like Guggenheim or Stein. But he pursued his work with great enthusiasm. When Mayer van den Bergh died suddenly in 1901 — fatally falling off a horse at age 43 — his heartsick mother built a house in the center of Antwerp’s banking district, and made it into a museum of her son’s little art collection.

The existence of “Dulle Griet” at the museum is as much a point of pride as the surprising story behind its purchase. In 1897, Mayer van den Bergh saw “Dulle Griet” at an auction in Cologne. Only, he didn’t know it was “Dulle Griet” and didn’t know it was a Breugel. The painting’s identity was unknown to all – the signature was illegible – and nobody was interested in buying the weird rendering of an armed woman approaching the mouth of Hell. But the painting suited the taste of Mayer van den Bergh just fine. He picked it up for about 500 francs, took it home, and a few days later, realized he had a bona fide masterpiece.

Everyone loves this kind of story. We all believe, a little, in life as a treasure hunt — for fortune, for love, for knowledge. But there is a secret to treasure hunting that only the real collector knows: To find real treasure is part luck, part accident, part “good eye,” and a lifetime of sifting through crap. The crap-sifting, too, must be a genuine obsession. You must think of yourself as collecting all the time. You must become dedicated to the world of things.

Just picture yourself on a beach searching for shells. You always think you’ll be satisfied with a single shell, but it is never so. You drift across the shoreline, picking bits of colorful broken pieces out of the sand and then hurtling them back. You may find one truly spectacular shell. But even this is rarely satisfying. If anything, the find makes your quest all the more urgent. It isn’t long before you have slipped down the rabbit hole and into the quiet world of collecting. You can hardly hear the sound of the surf anymore. It’s not long before the shells become less important than the activity of searching for them.

The real collector is pulled inexorably along on the path of collecting until he or she almost transcends the act itself. It is this process that, in part, makes the objects collected so very personal to the collector. Maybe this is why true collectors often become anti-social. Collectors can begin to develop an almost mystical relationship with “stuff” until they have almost no need for everyday life. They may find themselves moving away from the world. They may find themselves moving toward Hell.

It’s no accident that “Dulle Griet” looks as if Hieronymous Bosch might have painted it. At the time Breugel was living and working in Antwerp, in the mid-16th century, the market for Bosch-type paintings was quite high. Breugel excelled at the style. Breugel also became well-known for paintings of simple Netherlandish peasants occupied with frolicking and fighting, and these too were popular with his patrons — wealthy businessmen and scholars who were, for their part, occupied with making Antwerp into the cosmopolitan capital of Europe. During Breugel’s time, Antwerp was the center of European capitalism. It was a city defined by banking and international trade; the River Scheldt was lined with ships overflowing with merchandise from New Worlds. At the beginning of the 16th century, Antwerp accounted for 40 percent of world trade. It was New York City and Beijing all together. In his studio in Antwerp, Breugel painted scenes of country merrymaking and hay. But outside his window was the chaos and thrill of life during the Renaissance.

Behind the scenes of this metropolitan bustle was Europe as the perpetual theatre of war and inquisition. The Thirty Years’ War that was just on the horizon. Just seven years after Breugel’s death, the Spanish would sack Antwerp for three bloody days; it would be the end of Antwerp’s merriment. Throughout Breugel’s life, the sacking and pillaging of towns and villages was routine business. In fact, it is believed that the mysterious journey of “Dulle Griet” from the Gallery of Rudolph II to its present home at the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp began with the Swedish sacking of Prague in 1648.

One of Breugel’s engravings, titled “The Battle Between the Money Bags and Strong Boxes,” was aptly described by Simon Schama as “capitalism as all-out war.” Of course, Breugel was as dependent on the patronage of Antwerp’s new rich as anyone. And yet, his paintings seem to condemn the very people engaged in creating Breugel’s paintings, the men of leisure who pondered and danced as the villages of Europe burned. That is to say, Breugel condemned his own collectors, and also himself. Maybe “Dulle Griet” was painted to say, “We are all implicated in this unstoppable amassing of goods and fun. And it’s got to stop somewhere.”

There are two fascinating facts about Fritz Mayer van den Bergh: That he gave up a public career in diplomacy for the private pursuit of collecting things, and that he owned Mad Meg. For Fritz Mayer van den Bergh’s desire to own Mad Meg seems as much a self-critique as Bruegel’s desire to paint her.

There’s another painting. This painting is called “The Bookworm,” painted by the German artist Carl Spitzweg in the mid-19th century. It is a painting of a man, standing on a library ladder. His wall of books surrounds him like a fort. The man’s clothing is in disarray and he’s got volumes stuffed in every crevasse of his person — in his right hand, under his left armpit, between his legs. In his left hand is also a book, it is open, and the man holds it right up to his nose. From the window, a ray of light illuminates this single open book, exaggerating the man’s shortsightedness, which is both actual and metaphorical. Like Breugel before him, Spitzweg meant this painting as a critique of the collector, lost in his books, unable to look outside the window to the real world of war and politics (in this case, the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the revolutions of 1848).

I mention this painting because it is one that Walter Benjamin draws attention to in his famous essay “Unpacking My Library.” The essay — contrary to all the Breugels and Spitzwegs and Brechts even — is an enthusiastic defense of the collector. It is not just the thing collected that matters, Benjamin wrote: All the world comes alive to the collector engaged in the act of collecting. What a difference there is, he wrote, between the student who goes across the street to buy a textbook at a shop and the collector who goes across Europe on an acquisitional adventure. “Collectors are people with a tactical instinct,” Benjamin wrote, “…the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationary store a key position.” And yet, the collector must always return to the den of things, where the collected items are appreciated. The things salvaged from remote stationary stores and dusty auction houses in Cologne must always have a private home with the collector.

O bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure! Of no one has less been expected, and no one has had a greater sense of well-being than the man who has been able to carry on his disreputable existence in the mask of Spitzweg’s “Bookworm.” For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector — and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be — ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.

I wonder if anyone ever asked Fritz Mayer van den Bergh, the last collector of “Dulle Griet,” what he thought the painting meant. Perhaps the mouth of Hell looked to him just as Benjamin describes his library, as a collector’s dwelling, a haven for things. I wonder if didn’t see himself in Dulle Griet, defending her possessions from the naysayers. Maybe, he thought, maybe Dulle Griet isn’t a pillager at all but rather a collector, searching for a fortress to hold her stuff, for a place to come alive in them. Perhaps the mouth of Hell is the only real option. • 3 May 2012


Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.