After Pieter I Bruegel the Elder (Breda ?, 1525/1530 – Brussels, 1569)
Engraved by Pieter van der Heyden (Antwerp, circa 1530 – 1575)
The Witch of Malleghem

Burin engraving on paper
32.8 x 46.3 cm

Inv. 2006.5.1

Acquisition 2006
With a contribution from the Museums Regional Acquisition Fund

Major works | Earthly & Spiritual Matters

Excising madness !

This print was engraved by Pieter van der Heyden after the lost drawing by Pieter Bruegel.

In the village of Mallegem, which means "the village of fools" or "the simple-minded" in Flemish, the inhabitants are gathered on the village square to watch and/or take part in a strange ceremony: a charlatan is about to remove the cause of their madness: a stone apparently wedged in their brain. As he extirpates a stone from one of the villager’s heads, one of his assistants leans over the "patient’s" head with a lantern to check that there aren’t any others. A bit dim-witted, the latter hasn’t noticed that a box full of pebbles just like the one that has been removed from his head lies at his feet. Under the table, a man is grabbing one to try and denounce the trick, but he won’t be able to because a padlock has closed his mouth shut. A fool’s bauble can be seen peeking out of his sleeve, a symbol of madness.

This engraving is a spot-on illustration of the famous Flemish expressions: "Een kei in het hoofd hebben", or "have a stone in your head", which was commonly used to refer to lunatics, and "Iemand van dei kei snijden", or "excise the stone", which meant to deliver someone from their madness. Bruegel is making fun of charlatans here, common in his time, but also the stupidity and gullibility of men who are prepared to believe anything.