While he’s best known for homely peasant scenes, Dutch master
also had a knack for shocking his audience. “Like a director of horror films, the painter tried to appeal to all the senses in order to arouse fear and create pleasure at the same time,” Bruegel biographer Leen Huet has written
. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his 1561 canvas Dulle Griet
), which takes a cue from Bosch and explores hell through the lens of contemporary Flemish culture.
This painting depicts the folkloric character of Dulle Griet, the leader of an all-female army on a quest to pillage hell. Her strength is underlined by her massive scale; she dwarfs both her compatriots and her opponents, a multitude of fantastical demons that dot the otherwise familiar Dutch landscape. Bruegel has depicted the underworld as an eerie fusion of fantasy and reality. Griet seems to run toward a literal gaping “mouth of hell,” its scaly skin resembling bricks in the surrounding architecture. Instead of devouring the dead, the monsters of this hell battle flesh-and-blood warriors.
Some scholars have also read the painting as an exploration of 16th-century Netherlandish gender dynamics. A 1568 book of proverbs provides context: “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.” In this way, the painting can be read as a study of female power. Is Griet a greedy agent of chaos or a heroic victor who isn’t afraid to go head-to-head with the Devil?