06 March 2014

Art for Lent (2): ‘The Battle between Carnival
and Lent’ (1559), by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

‘The Battle between Carnival and Lent’ (1559), by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Patrick Comerford

My choice of a work of art for meditation this morning [6 Match 2014], the second day of Lent, is The Battle between Carnival and Lent (1559) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca 1525-1569).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder enjoyed a solid reputation during his lifetime, and his paintings were in greater demand after his death in 1569. Because of this constant demand, his son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger (1564-1638), specialised in copying his works.

The original of The Battle of Carnival and Lent is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. It was painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1559 in oil on panel, and measures 118 cm x 165 cm. The copy version by the artist’s son is in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.

The painting depicts a popular, traditional festival in the Southern Netherlands in the mid-16th century. A battle enacted between the figures Carnival and Lent was an important event in community life in early modern Europe, representing the transition between two different seasonal cuisines: livestock that was not to be wintered was slaughtered, and meat was in good supply. As the period of Lent begins, with abstinence and spiritual preparation for Easter, the butcher shops closed and the butchers travelled into the countryside to buy cattle for the spring.

The carnival was held in Flemish towns and villages each year in the week before Lent. A half-religious, half-secular festival, it provided an excuse for excesses of drinking and sex.

Bruegel stresses the opposition between the traditional enemies, Carnival and Lent, by representing their conflict as a joust. The two adversaries are the obese Carnival, sitting astride a barrel with a spit for a tilting lance and a pie on his head, and the thin pinched figure of Lent, seated in a cart and using a baker’s shovel as her weapon. They come to blows in the square of this small Flemish town.

The painting presents a contrast between two sides of contemporary life, represented by the inn on the left, with a group of raucous drunkards nearby, and the church on the right, with a group of well-behaved children sitting nearby. This juxtaposition illustrates and contrasts the two sides of human nature: pleasure and religious chastity.

This painting is filled with humour and wit, but it is also a satirical comment on the conflicts of the Reformation. The fat Lord of the Carnival astride the barrel represents Protestants, while the melancholy, lean figure with a beehive on his head, represents Catholics.

In Bruegel’s time, the Reformation was gaining support, and many of the old customs under threat. The Reformers heavily criticised the Lenten traditions, while the spirit of carnival was regarded with suspicion on both sides of the religious divide.

Bruegel produced this painting from a bird’s eye view, as if he wished to stay out of any polemic of the time. Yet he is caricaturing both sides harshly and equally. The painting defies any linear narrative, but one may divide it into two sections: the popular and the religious.

Bruegel’s painting is often read as the triumph of Lent, since the figure of Carnival seems to bid farewell with his left hand, his eyes lifted to the sky. A more generalised meaning may be the illustration of Bruegel’s belief that human activities are motivated by folly and self-seeking.

In the foreground, two opposing processions, the one to the left led by the replete figure of Carnival and the one to the right by the haggard figure of Lent, are about to confront each other in a burlesque parody of a joust. Here, on either side of the picture, are feasting and fasting, winter and spring (the trees to the left are leafless, those to the right have leaves), popular jollity and well-ordered charity, the ill-famed tavern and the church as the refuge of the pious soul.

The background is dominated by people working, primarily with food: women preparing Lenten fish, men carrying wine from the inn and a woman making waffles. At the very back of the painting, other festivities are going on with a bonfire, dancing figures and beggars spread across the whole scenery.

The scene is set in a town’s Market Square, with the figure of Carnival impersonated by a fat man who led a procession through the town and presided over a large feast. In some traditions, an effigy of the Carnival figure was burned at the end of the celebrations.

The busy scene depicts well-behaved children near the church and a beer drinking scene near the inn. Other scenes include a well in the centre, which represents the coming together of different parts of the community, a fish stall and two competing floats.

Lent’s half of the picture is dominated by abstinence and piety, with people drawing water from the well, giving alms to the poor and the sick, and going to church.

The church is the dominant building, with queues of black figures come out from prayer.

Lady Lent in the foreground, robed like a nun, is sitting on a cart drawn by a monk and a nun, and looks gaunt and thin, with her followers feeding on bread and biscuits. Her wagon contains traditional Lenten foods: pretzels, waffles, and mussels.

Just inside the entrance to the church we can see a veiled statue – it is customary in to cover all works in churches during Lent until Easter Day.

The figure of Carnival is a large man riding a beer barrel with a pork chop attached to its front end. He is wearing a huge meat pie as a head-dress; he is wielding a long spit, complete with a pig’s head, as a weapon for the fight. The pouch of knives at his belt indicates that he is a butcher – the guild of butchers traditionally provided the meat for the carnival feast so his place at the heart of the procession is apt.

The man behind the barrel is dressed in yellow, which is connected with deceit, and he is followed by a female figure who is carrying on her head a table with bread and waffles on it. In one hand she holds a tumbler and in the other a candle, which may also symbolise deceit.

Beside the woman is a lute-player, who has been interpreted as symbolising the Reformers, who wanted to abolish Lent, identifying it with the Catholic concepts of Good Works.

The inn is packed with drinkers and onlookers watching the performance of a popular farce known as ‘The Dirty Bride.’

At the street crossing, a group of cripples have come out to beg on Carnival’s side of the square but they are ignored by the revellers. Behind them, a procession of lepers walks past, led by a bagpiper.

An intriguing element for which no satisfactory explanation has yet been found is the fool guiding a couple with a torch in broad daylight in the centre of the composition. The group is walking towards the right, but with its back turned both to Carnival and the viewer.

‘The Battle between Carnival and Lent’ by Peter Bruegel the Younger

The original version of this painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder was certainly not lacking in humour. But his son’s version emphasises the encyclopaedic aspect: the many scenes accompanying the “battle” are all ceremonies or customs attached to the rites of Carnival and Lent, which succeed each other from Epiphany until Easter.

The smooth pictorial handling, the richness of the chromatic range and the subtlety of the colours, as well as the extreme care given to each detail make Brueghel the Younger’s painting much more than a simple copy.

This second painting also reveals details that had been painted over at a later date on the Vienna panel, including:

• the cripple standing with a naked torso on the far right
• the children lying at the entrance to the church
• the old woman bent double in the cart drawn by a poor woman in rags
• the bloated body of the corpse in the right foreground.

Tomorrow: Art for Lent (3), The Importunate Neighbour (1895), by William Holman Hunt.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For me the whole focus of the painting is the single house, standing centrally in the upper part of the picture but detached from the buildings on either side. This is the artist's representation of the self looking for spiritual renewal, and faced with a bewildering array of religious behaviours in the outside world, all of which appear slightly grotesque. The two figures valiantly cleaning the windows I think are a perfect expression of this inward state. This gives the painting a touching and uplifting humanity and lifts it out of a mere detailed documentation of life and religious practices of the time.