Riches Makes Thieves  Share

It is four hundred and fifty years ago that Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-1569) died, leaving behind him an impressive legacy of art work including paintings, drawings and prints. A good opportunity for the Museum to showcase the Fight of the Money Bags and the Coffers, an engraved work based on one of the Flemish artist’s drawings and exhibited in the Museum.

Best known for his paintings, Bruegel was above all an excellent designer for subsequent graphic production. Some of his drawings, which were often very detailed, were designed to be engraved. The prints resulting from these drawings explore several themes, including most notably humanity and society. The artist was quick to mock his own era’s society. So, it is hardly surprising that money and its dark side were taken up by Bruegel in one of his prints.

Tirelires armed with heavy swords, coffers split open spilling out coins, money bags brandishing spears and barrels of coins all mixed up in the general scrum: it is a ferocious and chaotic battle that Bruegel depicts in Fight of the Money Bags and the Coffers. While the vast majority of interpretations identify the money bag as the small saver and the coffer as a symbol of the wealth of the powerful, several ways of reading the drawing are possible. The print is said to illustrate sometimes the battle of the small saver against the financial powers and sometimes greed as the main cause of wars. Bruegel attacks the rule of money which often leads to conflict as is clear from the Biblical quote featuring at the bottom of the print: Divitiae faciunt fures / Multos perdidit aurem et argentum (Eccle 8.3.). In the lower margin, three couplets in Latin and Dutch build on this idea:

Well, Money Bags, Barrels and Coffers, / these fights and these disputes are for money and worldly goods. / And if you are told otherwise, do not believe it. / This is why we are waving the hook that has never failed us, / They are trying to overwhelm us, / but one would never have anything if there was nothing to take.

I03982 - Copy (6)

Pieter van der Heyden, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Fight of the Money Bags and the Coffers, after 1570. Engraving, 9 5/16 x 11 15/16 in. NBBmuseum, I03982.

In the bottom right corner of the print, there are two separate signatures: P. Bruegel Inũet. and Ioan Galle excudit. The abbreviation Inũet is used to mention the inventor of the composition – in this case, Bruegel – while the term excudit follows the name of the print publisher – Joannes Galle (1600-1676). The print kept in the Museum is the third version originating from Bruegel’s initial drawing and is thought to date from the 17th century. From the first to the third state, including second-state changes, there have been several modifications; for example, the addition of the Biblical inscription to replace the monogram of the engraver Pieter van der Heyden. The intervention of several people and replication are inherent features of an art medium like engraving. So, it is not rare for a print to be reproduced well after the death of its designer as is the case here.


Elise Pourtois
Museum guide