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Art and Images in Psychiatry
June 6, 2011

Pieter Bruegel's Dulle Griet

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(6):543-544. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.59

I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.—Ecclesiastes 1:17 And there is no anger above the anger of a woman. It would be more agreeable to abide with a lion or a dragon than to dwell with a wicked woman.—Ecclesiastes 25:23, Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible  . . . mirth's my theme and tears are not. For laughter is man's proper lot.—François Rabelais1(p36)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525-1569), famous during his lifetime for his illustrations of proverbs and for his humor, did not reveal what inspired him to paint the satirical allegorical painting known as Dulle Griet. In 1604, more than 40 years after the painting's completion, Karel van Mander, an early historian of Flemish painting, in his Schilder-Boeck wrote of Bruegel: “He also painted a Dulle Griet, who is stealing before [in front of] hell [Figure 1]. I believe this picture . . . is to be found at the Imperial court”2(p3) of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, in Prague. Moreover, van Mander noted that the viewer of Bruegel's paintings cannot “contemplate [them] seriously without laughing, and however straight-faced and stately he may be, he has at least to twitch his mouth or smile.”3(p1) The equivalent name for Griet is Margaret or Meg in English. The name often was used in a pejorative sense for an ill-tempered and emotionally explosive woman. At Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, the cannon was named Roaring Meg and another great cannon at the Friday Market in Ghent, Belgium, in 1578, was named Dulle Griet.3(p127) Thus, Dulle Griet was a stock character in the folklore of the day.

Figure 1. 
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525-1569), Flemish. Dulle Griet looting before hell.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525-1569), Flemish. Dulle Griet looting before hell.

Over the centuries, there have been many interpretations of Dulle Griet; some are psychiatric. Dulle has variously been translated as mad (mentally ill) and wrathful. Jan Grauls,3(p127) a leading Belgian folklorist, insists that the word dulle means ill tempered and believes it does not refer to major mental illness. However, a monograph coauthored by Frederich Panse, a German professor of psychiatry,4 proposes that “Mad Meg” (Dulle Griet) is psychotic.4 Panse refers to Théodore Géricault's portraits of the insane, particularly his portrait of envy as an example of his approach to Dulle Griet. His reference is to Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol's classification of monomania, a psychiatric term for unreasonable mental preoccupations.5 Panse's approach is iconographic, based on ideas from Ernst Kretschmer (1888-1964) about constitutional body types. Leptosome is the prominent body type in schizophrenia. Specifically within this body type, Panse referred to the elongated nose and shortened jaw viewed in profile, a profile referred to as the angular profile (Winkelprofil), as characteristic of schizophrenia (written communication; Stephan Heckers, MD; April 20, 2011). Panse found this profile in Dulle Griet, commenting on her empty affectless gaze, disheveled appearance, and unkempt hairdo. He referred to the way she clutched her belongings as typical of paranoia and to her stiff gait. Moreover, he suggested the chaos depicted in the painting was consistent with her psychotic worldview, illustrating her delusions but not hallucinations, which tend to be auditory in schizophrenia. Panse proposes that Bruegel might have met a patient in a mental asylum and based the painting on that person; however, there is no evidence to support this claim.

Regarding his views of people with mental illnesses, Panse was a T4 Nazi psychiatrist who participated in sterilization courts for the insane; a German propaganda film about involuntary euthanasia of mentally ill people was based on his ideas. The Nazis used facial features, physiognomy, to distinguish between pure and impure races. Despite his wartime activities, Panse was acquitted of collaboration with the Nazis in 1947.

Esquirol's monomania and Kretschmer's body types are no longer used in psychiatric classification. Panse and Schmidt’s modern interpretation of Dulle Griet as an example of schizophrenia in art may tell us more about earlier psychiatric classifications than Bruegel's intentions.6 In the context of the 16th century, when Bruegel painted, the 7 deadly sins were viewed as a kind of madness; thus, his focus was not on major mental illness but on sinfulness. Lust, anger, craving for power, greed, and other sinful activities were viewed as a kind of madness that led to damnation. Bruegel's painting can be viewed as a satire on wrath, greed, and other sins.

Dulle Griet is not the only prominent figure in the painting. She is accompanied by an oddly clad giant male figure carrying the ship of fools on his shoulder (Figure 2). Some authors view her as the personification of the madness that results from preoccupation with sin, and the male figure as the contrasting personification of folly, for madness and folly often appeared together. Others focus instead on Dulle Griet herself and emphasize the folly of ill temper and avarice in the women depicted. Leading critics reference Ecclesiastes (epigraph), either highlighting the serious theme of wisdom and folly7 or comically illustrating the consequences of foolish behavior.3 It is unlikely that 16th century people were attracted to Bruegel's paintings for morality lessons; more intriguing to them were his creative illustrations of their foibles and the battle of the sexes at a time when women were increasingly independent in the republic. Gibson3 emphasizes the art of laughter in Bruegel's paintings.

Figure 2. 
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525-1569), Flemish. Folly carrying the ship of fools.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525-1569), Flemish. Folly carrying the ship of fools.

Dulle Griet may illustrate a variant of the Flemish proverb “She could plunder in front to hell and return unscathed.”3(p127) In a Flemish book of proverbs, her description appears after a section on henpecked husbands.3(p128) Dulle Griet is a virago—noisy, scolding, or domineering—who seemingly has cast off the male yoke and now challenges the most formidable male of all, the Devil himself, as she and her sisters torment the Devil's minions near the entrance to hell. In the manner of Bosch,8 Bruegel imaginatively expresses various Flemish proverbs in the painting, with farcical, bizarre, fantastic, and macabre figures who appear outside hell.

Dulle Griet strides through the center of the painting before the background of hell, brightened by fires, passing hell's entrance while seemingly unaware of the odd beings beside her. Among them is a fish with hands and feet who is wearing a horseshoe for a collar and a creature wearing a hat that is a terrine of foie gras. A huge plucked bird who drags itself on a crutch seems terrified of her and passes sausages from its behind. Next to it is a comically appearing barrel with legs and a human face, wearing a hat. As she passes by the open mouth of hell, the devilish brood scurries away from her. A reversed human head runs away on 1 arm and 1 leg. A helmet pulls up a drawbridge next to the monstrous head. The surrounding moats and ditches are full of strange fauna—fat toads, horned devils, and a beehive on legs riding a pike.Image description not available.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525-1569), Flemish. Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), 1562-1566. Oil on oakwood, 117 × 162 cm. Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium. Photo Credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York, New York.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525-1569), Flemish. Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), 1562-1566. Oil on oakwood, 117 × 162 cm. Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium. Photo Credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York, New York.

Bruegel creates a world of hybrid creatures by attaching human and animal limbs and faces to inanimate objects. The dungeon that marks the entrance to hell is personified with a giant head and dreadful mouth. An owl is nested in its nose; its 2 eyes peer out from a nostril under wooden shutter eyelids. Birds rest on the eyebrows made of a line of flagons (wine vessels with handles). Many flagons are strewn throughout, suggesting that excessive drink is a path to hell. The giant head's left ear may be a devil fish (manta ray).

Dulle Griet is not alone; her retinue of followers, housewives wearing long dresses, aprons, and bonnets, wield sticks, clubs, and swords as they attack hapless devils who retreat before them. One, as in a proverb, humiliates her victim by tying him to a pillow. Others pillage on the city outskirts while still others follow her in search of new booty.

Bruegel's male giant signifying folly is bestride the roof of a house outside the walls of hell. A natural fool9 unaware of his nakedness, he ladles out money from his egg-shaped behind to eager women below. Placed on the edge of hell, it may be a commentary on how money facilitates vile passions and leads to folly. Folly carries on its shoulder a boat holding a large crystal ball. The ball shows a wailing monk and 3 monsters throwing a sphere and a plated roast chicken overboard. The boat appears to be the ship of fools, the allegorical vessel filled with deranged and oblivious passengers aboard a ship without a pilot who know not where they go. The boat is moored by a rope attached to the rigging of 2 masts, each with its own crow's nest. Comically, one of the masts is the upper part of a tree growing below. Bizarre toads occupy the rigging; one takes soundings into the void.2 A pair of monkeys drink ditch water hauled up in a bucket like drunks who seek inebriation throughout eternity.2 Satan's realm is behind the walls of hell. There, various occupants are shown (eg, a procuress possibly with clients). In the far distance, new arrivals are shown being ferried into hell in 2 boats to join some 20 naked men. One futilely tries to climb a rock. Further off, at the edge of the water, someone is caught in quicksand. In the center, a harp, an attribute of greed, projects from an egg shell with a monkey astride; a spider grasps the harp strings. Above the grotto, 2 souls are shown in a large cage roofed by the foliage of a tree trimmed as an umbrella. On top, little devils perform a wild dance.2 And in the foreground to the right, an army moves forward, apparently led by a monkey. This may be a satire on how violence and rigid religious belief can lead to folly.

In summary, Bruegel's Dulle Griet is best understood in the context of the cultural setting of the 16th century. Such an approach lends a narrative richness to the events of that era. Retrospective psychiatric diagnoses detract from that richness. The madness shown is the foolishness inherent in betraying one's self for the deadly sins, not schizophrenia. Bruegel's depictions are spontaneously created by his active imagination; they are not psychotic delusions. There are similarities to Dante's Inferno in that Bruegel seemingly refers to Upper Hell (Inferno III-VIII) showing the arrival of new victims and the realms of the hoarders, the spendthrifts, the gluttonous, and the wrathful.10

In Bruegel's time, the concrete expression of proverbs was a way of expressing humor. Dulle Griet is filled with them. At the center of the painting, between Dulle Griet and the Fool, a man breaks through the roof holding a knife and a pot. He illustrates another proverb, “to scrape the pot”7 (thumbnail), signifying greed. Ironically, he is cleaning the outside of the pot with the knife, not the inside—more folly that illustrates Bruegel's topsy-turvy inside-out world. Bruegel's painting is essentially a cartoon that evokes laughter while satirizing bad temper, foolish behavior, greed, and other sins—for it was said that sin is best acknowledged, not by a reprimand, but by the enticement of a joke. Bruegel's moral message suggests a more recent adage:Image description not available.

When they're offered to the world in merry guise/Unpleasant truths are swallowed with a will/For he who’d make his fellow, fellow, fellow creatures wise/Should always gild the philosophic pill.11

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