Manneken-pis in 10 key facts

But he’s tiny!

01. But he’s tiny!

It never ceases to amaze us when we consider the fame enjoyed by Manneken-Pis in relation to his tiny size.The statuette may be just 55 cm high, but it has achieved huge renown. And yet, who really knows its story? This dates back to the Middle Ages, when, in the mid-15th century, a Manneken-Pis statuette was already adorned a public fountain situated at the intersection of the rue du Chêne and the rue de l’Étuve. The inhabitants of Brussels were fond of this figure of a urinating child, so it was not surprising that the city authorities commissioned a renowned sculptor, Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder (ca. 1570-1650), to create a new statuette in bronze as part of a renovation project for the fountain in 1619. In the mid-19th century, Manneken-Pis became a purely ornamental fountain. He is protected by a railing, which has closed off the basin into which he spurts water.

The embodiment of the people of Brussels

02. The embodiment of the people of Brussels

The city’s inhabitants have become so attached to Manneken-Pis, with his affectionate yet impish expression, that they identify themselves with him. An attack on him is an attack on the entire population. In this way, when King Louis XIV of France bombarded Brussels, Manneken-Pis was chosen as the « spokesperson » for the citizens,mocking the French King and calling for misfortunes to rain down upon him. In 1747 a group of French soldiers made off with the statuette. In order to avoid a confrontation between his troops and the inhabitants of Brussels, King Louis XV appointed Manneken-Pis a Chevalier of the Order of Saint Louis and presented him with a nobleman’s costume. In 1817 Manneken-Pis was stolen. The guilty party was apprehended and received a remarkably severe punishment, being sentenced to hard labour, branded with a hot iron and exposed to public view! During the two World Wars, the image of Manneken-Pis was used to embody the spirit of resistance in the face of the occupying forces. In less dramatic times, his activity - which is only natural, after all - has also been used as a way of gently mocking authority, the rules of decorum and prudery. More recently, in the wake of the murders carried out in Brussels on 22 March 2016, it was Manneken-Pis, as always, who was chosen to express the citizens’ grief and anger.

Dressing up a statue?!

03. Dressing up a statue?!

Although dressing religious statues, mainly those representing the Virgin Mary and Christ, is a well-known custom, dressing secular figures is a much rarer phenomenon. Manneken-Pis is probably the only statuette in the world to possess an actual wardrobe of clothes. The tradition of dressing him dates back at least to 1615, when he appeared in a shepherd’s costume in a painting of the Ommegang Procession by Denis Van Alsloot. The first record of an outfit having been given to Manneken-Pis dates back to 1698, but the oldest original costume kept in the Museum was presented to him by Louis XV in 1747. In the 18th century the statuette was dressed up at least four times a year, for major festivals. Currently, an official schedule marking around 130 occasions for dressing Manneken-Pis is drawn up every year.

Around a thousand costumes!

04. Around a thousand costumes!

Today Manneken-Pis has about 1000 costumes. There were not many new additions to his wardrobe until the 19th century. His first outfits were presented by public officials, and were grand in style. Between 1918 and 1940 he received around thirty new costumes. From 1945 to the 1970s he was given between 5 and 15 new items each year, while from the 1980s the number of new costumes he received annually rose to between 25 and 30. The donors have now become more diverse. By presenting Manneken-Pis with an outfit, associations involved in sports, the community and carnival planning, etc., as well as important figures or foreign embassies, all want to pay their own tribute to the little ketje (« lad ») from Brussels, and honour the city through him. In this way, they can raise their profiles and attract good publicity. Every continent is represented in this rich collection. Unsurprisingly, however, most of the costumes come from Belgium and Europe.

A very serious commission

05. A very serious commission

In order to present Manneken-Pis with a costume, an official request must be made to the College of the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Brussels. The proposal is examined by a commission composed of members of the Order of the Friends of Manneken-Pis, together with representatives of the City of Brussels. A ruling stipulates that certain conditions must be met before a costume can be accepted. The material used must be of good quality, to ensure that the garments will remain in a good state of preservation, and the statuette must not be used for political purposes, promoting beliefs or advertising. If the proposal is accepted, it is the responsibility of the donors to cut out the pattern according to the instructions they are given, and make the costume. An official presentation ceremony then takes place, when the new costume is formally received at the City Hall by an elected representative.This is followed by a procession to the fountain, where the official dresser puts the new outfit onto the statuette. Once the ceremony is over, Manneken-Pis wears his new costume for the rest of the day, and it becomes part of his wardrobe. The donors can make a request for Manneken-Pis to be dressed in their costume for a specific occasion, such as a national day of celebration, a meeting for members of an association or fellowship, or to mark a sporting, cultural or charity event.

Costumes, past and present

06. Costumes, past and present

The first outfits given to Manneken-Pis, numbering around thirty, did not take the statuette’s pose into account: their sleeves were stuffed with padding and ended in gloves. Since 1945 the garments have been better adapted to the figure’s urinating pose, thanks to the creation of a pattern; this was digitized in the year 2000, so that costumes can now be made on the other side of the world. Making an outfit for this figure is no easy matter, not only are his measurements not those of a real child, but above all, great care must be taken to ensure that the costume is easy to put on the statuette at the fountain.

An official dresser

07. An official dresser

An act passed in 1756 and kept in the City of Brussels Archives provides the first record of an official title of « dresser » to Manneken-Pis. This post still exists today, and is held by a municipal civil servant, who is responsible for dressing and undressing the statue in a particular outfit according to the schedule of events. The job involves getting up early and working until late, both on weekdays and at weekends! Balanced on a ladder, in all weathers and watched by curious onlookers, the dresser has to work skilfully in order to dress Manneken-Pis; the statuette’s feet are attached to a base, his arms are fixed to his waist and his back has a hole in it to allow the water to flow through.

A dynamic collection

08. A dynamic collection

The wardrobe belonging to Manneken-Pis consists of costumes designed to be worn on a fountain in the open air. This has resulted in a highly unusual museum collection, as the outfits are subjected to all kinds of weather conditions and may be splashed, or even sometimes vandalized. These factors must all be borne in mind when considering their long-term preservation. After being worn at the fountain, outfits are carefully dried to prevent mould and, if necessary, lightly cleaned and reinforced before being put away. To ensure that they are preserved under the best possible conditions in the Museum’s stored collections, the various parts of each costume are kept separate. This limits the problems of tearing, colours running from one garment into another, and crushing. Despite these precautions, however, certain costumes do deteriorate. They are then entrusted to the care of specialists in textile conservation. The various materials used (leather, metal, wood, plastic, etc.) require multi-disciplinary methods of repair work. In very rare cases, a costume is replaced by a replica, when it is no longer in a fit state to appear at the fountain. Then, with the utmost care, it is put away in the Museum’s stored collections.

The Order of the Friends of Manneken Pis

09. The Order of the Friends of Manneken Pis

Established in 1954, the Order of the Friends of Manneken-Pis serves as the living memory of the statuette. The Order, which numbers around a hundred members, actively contributes to the folklore surrounding this famous little fellow, from holding consultations concerning applications to make his new costumes, to their inauguration at the fountain. On that occasion, the members of the Order sing a song dedicated to Manneken-Pis, which was written by Maurice Chevalier, the French star of the inter-war and post-war period: « Manneken-Pis, petit gars de Bruxelles…. » (« Manneken-Pis, little lad from Brussels… »). During the chorus, Manneken-Pis sprays the spectators with water. At some ceremonies, the ketje (« lad ») produces beer or wine, perpetuating the tradition of public drinking fountains.

But – where’s the real one?

10. But – where’s the real one?

From the 18th to the 20th century Manneken-Pis was subject to several violent thefts. In 1965, the authorities place a copy at the fountain and decide to keep the older figure in the Brussels City Museum on the Grand-Place. Do come and admire this masterpiece at close quarters! Your entrance ticket to the GardeRobe (« wardrobe ») will also give you access to the Museum.