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  Pieter Brueghel the Elder

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Pieter Brueghel the Elder
 
 
 
 
Demons in Our Midst
 
 
 
Bruegel's century saw the exploration of the Earth's surface, a fresh survey of the heavens, the examination of the human body, and the cataloguing of the animal and plant worlds. People's interest was focused upon what we today would call reality. At that time, however, many will have regarded as real, as existing, not only trees and animals, the liver and the spleen, but also demons. Scientific studies were unable to dispel handed-down popular belief. Many celestial phenomena, physical deformities, diseases and epidemics were as yet inexplicable, and were accordingly put down to the influence of devils and demons, together with their human accomplices. The latter alone, the witches and sorcerers, could be caught and punished. Thousands supposedly in league with the forces of evil - in particular women -were tortured, found guilty, and burnt at the stake.
Confessional reports and biographies reflect the great extent to which devils and demons were experienced as part of everyday reality. In the visual arts, they are given striking expression in the work of Hieronymus Bosch, likewise a Netherlander. Bruegel used his own fantasy to develop the tradition established by Bosch. He drew models for the prints of The Seven Deadly Sins (1558, detail p. 39) under commission from his publisher, Cock. Bruegel produced disturbing, unnatural landscapes filled with magical beings, in part playfully fantastical, in part genuinely threatening. It was presumably this mixture between the two elements, perhaps the thrill of fear, that was so sought after at the time.


The Seven Deadly Sins, or The Vices: Desidia (Sloth)
1557


Avaritia (Greed)
1558

The playful element is given less prominence in the artist's paintings, which are more serious in nature. Bruegel has depicted the origin of the demons in The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562), in which the Archangel Michael, together with his followers, is driving the angels who have rebelled against God out of Heaven. Falling to Hell, they are transformed into devils and demons. The proximity of God is indicated at the top edge by a brightly lit semicircle; furthermore, the upper - more heavenly - part of the picture is more clearly arranged and less congested than the lower one, approaching hell, in which the figures are chaotically falling past each other. A comparison of the angels and the devilish figures reveals that the former are clothed in lavishly swirling garments, leaving only their heads and hands visible. In contrast, most of the "evil ones" are naked, opening wide their mouths or tearing open their own bodies and - in some cases - presenting their buttocks to the observer's gaze. Bruegel has painted them merely as bodies, demonstrating the distance that lies between them and the spiritual beings, the angels.



The Fall of the Rebel Angels
1562

The Archangel Michael, portrayed in golden-brown armour in the middle of the picture, is driving the angels who have rebelled against God out of Heaven. The angels in white garments are fighting on his side, while those who have broken away from God are metamorphosing into the mostly naked bodies of fantastic figures.



The Fall of the Rebel Angels (detail)
1562

 
 
 

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

 
 
 


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



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

This painting likewise contains a world filled with strange, diabolical figures, often made up of dissimilar parts.
Here, a sitting figure with a boat on his back is spooning gold out of an egg-shaped rear.



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



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

 
 
 

 
 
 
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