Mysterious painting in unique museum in Antwerp intrigues visitors 

Mysterious painting in unique museum in Antwerp intrigues visitors 
Mad Meg, Pieter I Bruegel, 1563, credit: Museum Mayer van den Bergh

Museum Mayer van den Bergh is one of the most interesting art museums in Antwerp and one of its kind. Situated in a building from 1904 in Flemish Renaissance style it hosts the impressive and highly diverse collection put together by Fritz Mayer van den Bergh (1858 – 1901).

Belonging to an affluent merchant family, he did not marry and devoted his life to collecting art. After his premature death in 1901, his mother fulfilled his wish and had the museum built in his name next to the family house. In principle, nothing has been changed since then. The museum has been managed by the City of Antwerp since 1951.

The collection of some 3,100 works includes master pieces from the Flemish Northern Renaissance in the 16th century. Some pieces date back to the Flemish Primitives, who were among the first to use oil in mixing colour pigments. In those early days, paintings were still made on wood panels and not canvas.

Fritz Mayer also built up a collection of medieval works, including the oldest painting in Belgium. He had a special taste for art and archaeology and knew what he was looking for.

His collection includes among others family portraits reflecting the wealth of the bourgeois clients who ordered them, still-lives showing much more than flowers, religious paintings and wood carvings expressing piety and devotion. There are also altarpieces, telling a biblical story. They were intended to stand on or behind the altar in a chapel or in a private home because of their smaller size.

From an early age, Fritz Mayer was fascinated by the Bruegel artists. They were among the most known painters of the Northern Renaissance but little appreciated at the end of the 19th century, when Fritz Mayer was building up his collection.

The museum hosts a special collection of both Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his sons: Pieter the Younger and Jan. Most exceptional are Mad Meg and Twelve Proverbs, the only paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Antwerp. They are also the only paintings by him in Flanders.

The Census at Bethlehem and Winter Landscape with the Flight into Egypt are copies that Pieter Brueghel the Younger made of his father’s originals. The museum also possesses many copper engravings and prints, which are mostly not on display because they are too vulnerable.

What attracts many visitors to the museum is the Mad Meg (in Dutch: Dulle Griet), a mysterious painting which is open to different interpretations and draws our attention. The painting reminds us about the surrealistic paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, who might have influenced Bruegel the Elder - still Mad Meg is different.

The way how Fritz Mayer acquired the painting is a story in itself. The painting was auctioned in October 1894 under the name ‘Landscape with a Crowd of Ghoulish Figures’ and attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The auctioneer put the strange work high up on the wall, thinking that it was not worth much.

But Fritz Mayer was more alert and bought the painting through an agent for the sum of 488 francs, a pittance considering that the same year 45,000 francs was paid for a painting by Rubens. A few weeks later, Fritz Mayer identified the painting as Bruegel’s Mad Meg, a masterpiece previously thought to have been lost.

The painting is dated to 1563 and could have been painted in Antwerp or Brussels. Bruegel the Elder lived and worked in both cities so it is not clear where the painting was made. It went through a thorough restoration in 2019, bringing the colours and Bruegel’s brushwork back to life.

Mad Meg is a powerful painting that incorporates scenes of violence and destruction, ruins, monsters, and fights. The first impression is of an apocalypse and the end of the world as we know it. In fact, the painting, according to art historians, is based on a Flemish proverb about a mad woman daring to plunder from the mouth of hell - that is to act deliberately in an evil way.

That was also the first known description of the painting by Karel van Mander in 1604. A gigantic, ‘masculin’ woman in armour is striding forth in the center of the painting with a sword in one hand, and a treasure chest and a bag full of pots and pans under her other arm.

Behind her, women are fighting to get as many coins as possible from a gigantic foolish figure. Male soldiers are entering the scene on the right and there are all kinds of bizarre monsters, strange creatures, weird structures, and frightening details. The horizon appears to be on fire.

”Mad Meg has an Adam’s apple, a sword and all kinds of strange things,” explains Fred Vanderpoorten, the museum guide. Is she a woman, a man or androgynous? Did Bruegel want to convey a feminist message long before his time? Or did he want to show us how hell looks like for those who sin and warn people about the end of the world?

Our guide could not find anything positive or hopeful in the painting. There are eggs in the painting. Usually, eggs represent life and in Christianity even the resurrection of Jesus. But in Mad Meg, they represent evil - you never know what they contain and what will be hatched from them.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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