Meet and Griet
Most museums in Flanders are closed to the public on Mondays, but things are still happening behind the locked doors. At the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in Antwerp, for example, Monday is a day when researchers from the University of Ghent can get up close to the paintings. Very close.
A group of Ghent researchers use high-tech methods to uncover new facts about one of Flanders’ most famous paintings
Maximiliaan Martens and colleagues have been carrying out a detailed investigation of “Dulle Griet” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This is the jewel in the museum’s collection and one of the few paintings by the Flemish master still to be seen in Belgium. Their research has been carried out without the painting even leaving the wall.
“Dulle Griet”, usually translated as “Mad Meg” in English, is the woman dressed in armour at the centre of the painting. She appears to be leading a wild charge through a landscape filled with monsters, and the scene is generally thought to be an illustration of the saying that a person is so headstrong or fearless, they could pillage the gates of hell.
The aim of the research is to investigate Bruegel’s working methods. “Although Bruegel is a very well-known painter, very little has been done on his painting technique,” explains Martens, an art historian. “This painting has never been investigated properly except for some X-rays taken in the 1950s.”
The first step was to construct a very high-resolution digital map of the painting, a task completed by researchers at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). This allowed Martens and his colleagues from Ghent to carry out a minute examination of the painting. “Although we’ve known this painting for such a long time, we’ve seen details that we never noticed before, such as a veil above Griet’s helmet. It’s so delicate, but once you know it’s there, you can’t miss it.”
Close scrutiny of the brush-strokes also reveals something of Bruegel’s method. “You can see that it was painted very fast and rather sloppily, which is something you wouldn’t expect from a painter like Bruegel,” Martens says, adding that the painting was hardly intended to be examined this closely. “It all works from a distance.”
The next step was to examine the painting with infrared reflectography, a technique that detects material containing carbon, such as black ink or paint, but leaves other pigments transparent. “We can look under the paint layers, as it were, at the preliminary drawing,” Martens explains.
The secrets hidden in “Dulle Griet”
In the case of “Dulle Griet”, reflectography also revealed some writing, allowing the researchers to confirm Bruegel’s signature and the date, 1561, which was disputed until now. A more mysterious discovery is that the word “Dulle” can be made out written on the panel, suggesting to Martens that it may have been marked as part of a series.
They also discovered that Bruegel worked in two stages. “First, you can see under-drawings with faint lines, which are then reinforced with a liquid material, probably black ink,” Martens says.
Changes to the initial composition are rare – the most significant being Griet’s profile. “The position of the nose was changed a number of times, and at one point she had her tongue stuck out,” Martens explains, referring both to infrared reflectography and X-ray images. “The whole contour of the face has shifted, so he was looking for the right form.”
It’s also possible to see the intermediate layer between the wood panel and the painting, which is unexpected because it should contain no carbon-based pigment. It also shows up in X-rays, pointing to the presence of a heavy metal such as lead, and a later pigment analysis suggested the presence of earth colours.
“The Flemish Primitives, in the 15th century, would leave that layer white to have a brilliant background, but in the 16th century painters started to colour it. It’s remarkable to find that in Bruegel,” Martens says. “That’s part of his technique. By using this coloured intermediate layer, he unifies the composition.”
Sailing under false colours
Meanwhile, a pair of bellows that look black in the painting don’t show up in the infrared reflectography. This prompted the team to look more closely at the pigments. “We found that a green was used, which deteriorated and became dark brown or black. And we observed the same thing in other parts of the painting.”
Elsewhere they noticed premature cracking in some grey or brown areas of the painting, another sign of pigment deterioration. Analysis showed that these areas had been painted with a glaze containing smalt, a cheap blue pigment used from the middle of the 16th century. “The whole colour balance of the painting has shifted through aging of the paint,” Martens concludes.
In addition to its appearance, this changes the way the painting could be read. For example, a boat that appears towards the top of the painting also looks as if it was painted in this smalt glaze. “If it turns out to be blue, it could be a reference to de blauwe schuit, the blue boat, which is a known concept in the literature of the time and was like the ship of fools. That could be very interesting from an iconographic point of view.”
Fascinating as it is, this line of thought can only be taken so far. “We would like to reconstruct the original colour palette, but that is very, very difficult,” Martens explains. “It is almost impossible to estimate the degree of degradation; so where we see this grey, it could be bright blue or more subdued. That’s something we don’t know.”
Images from the research project are presented alongside “Dulle Griet” in the Mayer van den Bergh Museum
Bruegel’s graven images
When the Mayer van den Bergh museum calls its latest show The Unseen Pieter Bruegel, it means that the work on display is fragile and usually hidden away. But the title is apt, since most of what you are seeing is not technically “by” Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the strictest sense.
These are mostly engravings produced by contemporaries based on Bruegel’s designs. But even if they don’t show us Bruegel’s hand, they do provide a fascinating insight into his imagination and what could be called his staging or choreography.
Some of the images, such as a series on “The Seven Deadly Sins”, are heavily influenced by Hieronymus Bosch and present a dizzying variety of monsters and bizarre behaviour. Elsewhere there are scenes of provincial life, with engravings of “The Peasant Wedding Dance” and “The Land of Cockaigne” recalling well-known paintings.
But it is more of a treat to discover unfamiliar compositions, such as “The Stone Operation, or The Witch of Malleghem” in which a pair of quacks cure lunacy in a village by removing the stones from the villagers’ heads.
Bruegel’s quieter side can be seen in landscapes inspired by his travels in Italy, masquerading as religious scenes thanks to the inclusion here or there of a saint, or the addition (probably by the engraver) of a halo over the head of a traveller.
Finally, there are two drawings by Bruegel, one only recently attributed to the artist. Now faint and ghostly with age, these landscapes have a human touch completely absent from the engravings.
Until 14 October
The Unseen Pieter Bruegel
Mayer van den Bergh Museum, Lange Gasthuisstraat 19, Antwerp