Images of the Past


I like classical art and the centuries-old art of the Low Countries is my favorite. (The phrase “Low Countries” refers to Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, which are together sometimes also referred to as BeNeLux.) This part of Europe has been a battleground frequently in centuries past. It has a long history of being controlled by other powers. The Spanish were here the longest (1579-1714) and perhaps had the most influence.

It is the art created in what is now Belgium and Holland before and during the period of Spanish control that I like best. Unlike Italians who painted religious works to be displayed in churches, the Flemish artists of the Low Countries often painted the life around them. With almost photographic realism their art shows us the villages and neighbors of the artists – we see how our ancestors lived 500 years ago. And I like that.

Peter Bruegel is perhaps the best known for these “genre” paintings. He was only 44 years old when he died but he had compiled a large body of work. From his art we can see with photographic clarity life in a village in Belgium in the mid1500’s. (The picture above is called “Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap” and was painted in 1565.)

I’ve seen quite a lot of this art in the days I’ve spent in Antwerp. Yesterday I went to a small museum called Museum Mayer van der Bergh where I viewed an excellent collection of ancient Flemish art compiled by one man in the 1800s. Probably the best known piece is Bruegel’s painting known as Dulle Griet – or in English as Mad Meg. From this point forward I’m quoting a Wikipedia article about this painting.


“Griet was a disparaging name given to any bad-tempered, shrewish woman. Her mission refers to the Flemish proverb: She could plunder in front of hell and return unscathed.

“Bruegel is thus making fun of noisy, aggressive women. At the same time he castigates the sin of covetousness: although already burdened down with possessions, Griet and her grotesque companions are prepared to storm the mouth of Hell itself in their search for more.

“While her female followers loot a house, Griet advances towards the mouth of Hell … Griet wears male armor — a breastplate, a mailed glove and a metal cap; her military costume is parodied by the monster in a helmet beside her, who pulls up a drawbridge. A knife hangs from her side, while in her right she carries a sword, which may refer to the saying: “He could go to Hell with a sword in his hand.” A book of proverbs published in Antwerp in 1568 contains a saying which is very close in spirit to Bruegel’s painting: 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.

Very strange, isn’t it? Want to see more of life in 16th century Belgium? Go to this site, from which I copied Mad Meg.

How did we ever survive without the Internet?


2 thoughts on “Images of the Past

  1. That painting of the Griet with the gates of hell behind her is very interesting. What a delightful view of women they had! It’s great that you are taking time to learn study and learn about the art. Sometimes when I travel, I feel like we move so fast that everything blurs together. This is much more fun. Looking forward to what tomorrow brings. Have a wonderful weekend.


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