Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Manneken Pis: Still peeing after all these years

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

“Belgium’s culture of excretion goes back centuries.”1
– Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, art historian and professor at the University of Paris

Manneken Pis in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Myrabella on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

Artists in the low countries did not hesitate to depict human bodily functions. The great Netherlandish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–1569) had scenes of defecation in his paintings2 in the sixteenth century. The Belgian artist James Ensor often painted people vomiting in his work.3 The act of urinating was also a subject for painters and sculptors there. In the 100 years between 1559 and 1569, at least thirty paintings and engravings had men urinating, seven of them while alone, the rest in company. Four additional artworks were not from that 100-year period. Hieronymous Bosch (1450–1516) had The Wayfarer (or The Peddlar) urinating. Nicolaas Verkolje in about 1700 drew Merry Company on a Terrace, showing a urinating little boy. Abraham Delfors in 1751 created the engraving Interior with Smokers and Pissing Man, and the Dutchman Jan Augustini painted Landscape with Watering Man, Horse, and a Dog in 1759.Willem Basse painted A Pissing Peasant and Gerard ter Borsch painted Pissing Cavalier in 1631.4,5 Half of the representations of urinating men were done by members of the illustrious Bruegel family. Five were done by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, four by his oldest son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger (1564–1638), and one by his second son, Jan Bruegel the Elder (1658–1625).6 Pieter Bruegel the Elder illustrated Flemish sayings about urinating in some of his paintings. In Twelve Proverbs and again in Netherlandish Proverbs he illustrates the lack of success in reaching a goal, “Ik pis altijd tegen de maan” (“I’m always urinating at the moon”), and to illustrate complete discouragement, “His fire is pissed out.”7

The oldest, most visible low countries representation of male urination is in Belgium. The statue Manneken Pis (“the little boy pissing”, in Brussels dialect), is 55 cm tall, weighs 20 kg, and is made of bronze. A similar statue was first mentioned in an administrative document about water lines in 1451, when it was used as a means of distributing water to the public. It was first seen in a painting in 1616. A new statue of bronze, not of stone like the original, was installed in 1619. It was stolen in 1747 (by drunken French soldiers), and again in 1817, 1963, and 1966. There were also at least two unsuccessful attempts to steal it. Since 1851 the statue, still voiding its stream day and night, has had only a decorative (versus utilitarian) function. In 2018 it was discovered that water was leaking underground from the statue’s basin, about 1,000 liters per day. It has since been fixed.8

Why is this statue in the center of Brussels, a five-minute walk from the equally famous Grand-Place? One “origin legend” states that the troops of the juvenile (two-year-old) Duke Godfrey III of Louvain/Leuven put him in a basket in the branches of an oak tree while they fought the men of the lords of Grimbergen. The child urinated on the enemy soldiers, who lost the battle. The statue is located on the Rue de Chêne (or Eikstraat), that is Oak Street, in either language. Another “origin legend” from the fourteenth century is that a little boy saw that the city wall was about to be blown up by enemy soldiers, so he urinated on the fuse, preventing the powder from igniting. Several variations of still another legend exist, describing a boy from a noble or rich family getting lost in Brussels, and being finally found urinating against a wall. His parents donated a statue to commemorate the event.

Manneken Pis statues are in the Belgian cities of Ghent, Hasselt, Bruges, Koksijde, and Braine-l’Alleud, as well as in Helsinki, Guadalajara, and Prague.9 The topiary park in Durbuy, Belgium has bushes sculpted into the form of the Manneken Pis.10 Various governments and organizations have donated costumes to the statue. Costumes are changed several times a week. There are over 1,000 costumes, kept in the Brussels City Museum, to dress the statue as Mozart, Elvis, Nelson Mandela, Baden-Powell, Christopher Columbus, Dracula, and St. Nicholas.11 Maurice Chevalier wrote (1949) and recorded the song “Manneken Pis,” and a Manneken Pis statue was seen in the Peter Sellers movie The Party (1968).

Manneken Pis has been called “Belgium’s biggest tourist attraction”12 and “a kind of Belgian Mona Lisa,”13 which I hope is not so. There is much more to see in that country, even if the Manneken Pis is used to “represent the city [Brussels] and the country [Belgium]…in advertising [and] tourism.”14 Two centuries ago, it was even proposed that the Manneken Pis was a representation of the infant Jesus.15 Regardless, the statue “remains the emblem of the rebellious spirit of the city of Brussels.”16


  1. Jean-Claude Lebensztejn. Pissing Figures 1280–2014. New York: David Zwirner Books, 2017.
  2. Howard Fischer. “Depiction of defecation in the works of Pieter Bruegel.” Hektoen International Art Essays, Fall 2021.
  3. Howard Fischer. “Ensor’s use of emesis in art.” Hektoen International Art Essays, Fall 2021.
  4. “Category: Human male urination in art.” Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Human_male_urination_in_art.
  5. Lebensztejn, Pissing Figures.
  6. Nadia Groeneveld-Baadj et al. Brueghel: The Family Reunion. Zwolle, The Netherlands: WBOOKS, 2023.
  7. Rose-Marie Hagen et al. Bruegel: The Complete Paintings. Cologne: Taschen, 2005.
  8. “Mannekin Pis.” Wikipedia.
  9. “Mannekin Pis,” Wikipedia.
  10. Kristan Lawson et al. Weird Europe. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.
  11. “Manneken Pis. Bruxelles: Histoire du Manneken Pis de Bruxelles, photos, du Manneken Pis, costumes, visite virtuelle.” https://www.ilotsacre.be/site/fr/curiosites/manneken_pis-bruxelles.htm.
  12. Lebensztejn, Pissing Figures.
  13. Iz Elwood. “Manneken Pis: Brussels’ symbol of Belgian humour.” itinari.com, December 2017. https://www.itinari.com/manneken-pis-brussels-symbol-of-belgian-humour-g3oy.
  14. ” Manneken Pis,” Wikipedia.
  15. Jacques Collin de Plancy. Histoire du Manneken-Pis Avec les Appendices. Raconte’es par Lui-même. Brussels: Arnold La Crosse, 1824.
  16. Manneken-Pis/City of Brussels. https://www.brussels.be/manneken-pis.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan. Belgium and belgitude have greatly influenced him.

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