new categoryPosted by CELMJS Fri, February 05, 2016 01:03PM
Carnival is here and Ash Wednesday is next week, so we are in the final stages of the preparation for Lent. There are so many things to think about in order to be ready for the great penitential season.
What to give up? Personally, I give up tea, because it is both the simplest thing to do - it's so easy to remember - and the hardest thing to do, because I love my morning cup of tea... and my mid-morning cup... and my afternoon cup... and my just-before-bed cup...
And what to take up? Spiritual reading, extra prayers, a daily sacrifice...
And how many times should we go to confession? Once a week during Lent? Perhaps that's not a bad idea.
I read about this suggestion from St Josemaria Escriva, who was a great teacher of how to sanctify even the smallest and seemingly most insignificant moments of our day. He suggests we should get up out of bed the MINUTE the alarm goes off, rather than hitting the snooze button and rolling over for another 5 minutes of sleep. We offer up this sacrifice to God, he says, and this small mortification will strengthen us throughout the day in our resolution on the path of perfection. I think I shall try... and I emphasise try... to do this during Lent!
The heroic minute: here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does no harm to your body. If, with God’s help, you conquer yourself, you will be well ahead for the rest of the day. It’s so discouraging to find oneself beaten at the first skirmish.
(The Way, 206)
And if we fail, perhaps we could give ourselves a penitential breakfast instead...
new categoryPosted by CELMJS Fri, February 05, 2016 12:31PM
My first post is not in fact about a painting from Brussels, but it is about a Belgian artist - the great Catholic painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who worked a good deal in Antwerp, visited Rome, and died in Brussels in 1569.
This painting, called
‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’,
was painted in around 1559, and is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
In this teeming canvas filled with over 200
individual figures, Bruegel sets before us in vivid detail the main square of a
Flemish town in the 16th century. It is February, the month of Carnival
– carne vale or ‘goodbye to meat’ –
and also the month of Lent. The artist has conflated two days of the liturgical
calendar – Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday – into one single scene, and the
canvas is effectively divided into two parts, so that we see, on the left hand
side of the painting, the drunkards and gamblers of the Carnival outside the
tavern, and on the right, coming out of the church, the penitents and
alms-givers of the first day of Lent.
The ‘fight’ of the painting’s title is
taking place in the foreground. The two principal combatants are ‘Carnival’ in
red trousers on the left, and ‘Lady Lent’, the seated figure in grey on the
right. They are grotesque extremes: the ruddy-faced glutton battling the
ashen-faced penitent, with their followers snaking behind them on both sides.
‘Carnival’ is a pot-bellied man astride a
beer barrel, with a pork chop attached to its front end. His helmet is a game
pie and his lance is a spit on which a half-eaten suckling pig is skewered,
together with other pieces of meat and a dangling sausage. Around his waist
hangs a large butcher’s knife: by this time butchers had slaughtered all the
livestock they were not keeping over winter and consequently meat was
plentiful. At the beginning of Lent they closed their shops and travelled to
the countryside to purchase new livestock for Spring, so this is very much the
butcher’s last hurrah.
Behind him is a motley group of masked villagers,
playing music and carrying food associated with this time of year – a necklace
of eggs, a large wooden platter of waffles, cakes and biscuits. All around them
are symbols of vice. A man plays dice with a sinister masked figure in black in
the bottom left-hand corner. Playing cards are scattered on the ground, and drunkards
leer out of the windows of the tavern watching a makeshift production of a play
called ‘The Dirty Bride’. Meanwhile, a group of beggars and cripples on
crutches gaze at the scene, ignored by everyone.
On the right side of the painting is the
emaciated figure of Lady Lent – a man dressed as a woman, probably as a nun.
She wears a beehive on her head, symbolizing the Church, and her lance is a
wooden oven peel with two Lenten herrings balancing on top. Her cart is pulled
by a monk and a nun, and her followers – some of whom are beating their breasts
– carry dry bread and pretzels, traditional Lenten fare. Lady Lent carries a
bundle of twigs, a symbol of penitence.
Behind them is another group of beggars
and cripples. In contrast to their fellows on the left, these unfortunates are being
attended to by well-dressed men and women who dig deep into their purses for
money, and by nuns who hand out food and blessings. The alms-givers have just emerged
from the Ash Wednesday Mass. Behind them, through the wide door of the church,
we see veiled statues and a priest hearing confession, his hand raised in the
blessing of absolution.
In the centre of the painting is a large
square well, surrounded by a group of village women preparing fish for Lent.
The well – a symbol of the well-spring of God’s love – stands at the heart of
the village, but is ignored by the Carnival-goers on the left. They are
oblivious to the fact that Lent has begun: none of them acknowledges that the
time of feasting and self-indulgence they have enjoyed must necessarily give
way to a period of prayer and penitence: carne
vale implies not only goodbye to meat, but farewell to the flesh.
Far from turning away from it however, they remain absorbed in their world of debauchery. Bruegel makes a subtle but direct comparison between the drunken figure vomiting out of the top floor window of the tavern (below), with a kneeling figure receiving absolution in the church. Self-abandonment to worldly desires is contrasted with self-examination and a commitment to the path of salvation.
As always with Bruegel, there is a mystery at the heart of the painting, and it lies with the two figures in the centre of the canvas, the man and woman with their backs to us, who are being led along a path by a fool in a green, yellow and red costume. It is impossible to tell whether the couple will turn to the left – towards the tavern, vice and oblivion – or to the right – towards a true preparation of body, mind and soul for the death and resurrection of the Saviour of the World. It is clear that the fool wishes to lead the couple towards the tavern – this is the easy path, illuminated by a blazing torch. But which path will they take? That is the real question of this painting, and of the lives of Catholics – as much today as in the time of Bruegel.