Postcards from Brussels

Postcards from Brussels

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’

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.