Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The stone-cutter or the Witch of Mallegem (1559)

(Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

An engraving by the Flemish artist Pieter van der Heyden (1530-1572) after a design of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569). This engraving shows a large group of people who are rushing to a female charlatan. The female charlatan (= 'the witch of Mallegem') is extracting 'the stone of madness' from the head of a patient. According to a story a charlatan exploited the ignorance of a fictional sucker called 'Lubbert Bas' by making him believe that the cause of his madness was a stone which was lodged in his brain (=the stone of madness). By removing the stone the patient could be cured of his madness. Such operations did not exist in reality but the story was used in 15th and 16th century art and refers to the folly and gullibility of people. Bruegel shows the swindle: the witch is holding in her left hand a stone of madness which she removed from her patient, underneath her table you can see 1 of her servant who is picking an ordinary stone from a box - the 'successfully removed stone of madness', his lips are sealed with a lock while a fool can be seen in one of his sleeves! Another servant is selling a kind of potions to the people and 1 of the men in the crowd is already losing his money from his purse. The large empty eggshell with in the lower right corner is a symbol of futility and barren folly. The water mill and the miller in the top left corner represents the imperturbability of sanity against the madness of the charlatan and the gullible people. The entire scene takes places in the town of 'Mallegem' ('Mal' means crazy/ foolish in Dutch so the name here means 'suckerville', the place where fools are living) as is indicated by the Dutch text at the bottom:

Ghy Lieden van Mallegem, wilt nu wel syn gesint
Ick Vrou Hexe wil hier oock wel worden bemint
Om u te genesen, ben ick gecomen hier
Tuwen dienste, met myn onder meesterssen fier
Compt vry, den meesten met den minsten sonder verbeyen
Hebdy de wesp int hooft, oft loteren u de keyen.

Folks of Mallegem, be of good cheer;
I, Lady Witch, wish to be well-loved here
As I am elsewhere
I have come here to cure you
With my proud aide; i assure you
We're at your service; draw near
So Let them come on, come one and come all
The large and the small
Hurry on, every one
If you've a wasp in your dome
Or you are plagued by a stone

Colored engraving from 1559.