Saturday, 7 November 2020

Did the man in the wedding
painting in White’s café in
Wexford have three legs?

‘The Peasant Wedding’ (1567) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder … were there three legs on that man in the print in the café in White’s Hotel?

Patrick Comerford

I was writing earlier this week (5 November 2020) about how I have found the records of my great-uncle, John Lynders, my grandmother’s elder brother, and how he lived in Wexford about a century ago.

That search and discovery were prompted two months ago during a return visit to Wexford two months ago (2-3 September 2020), when I walked back along Main Street, using as my guidebook Nicky Rossiter’s book, Main Street, Heart of Wexford (Stroud: History Press, 2018).

Nicky’s book has prompted brought back many memories, including his shared memories of White’s Hotel in the 1960s, which are equally true for the 1970s.

He writes (page 59) of a time when ‘a night out meant a trip to White’s Barn ... Back in those days White’s was the epitome of cool. It was also a one-stop entertainment shop. There was the Shelmalier Bar for a cosy drink at an open fire – it later became the library and is now destined for refurbishment.’

He continues: ‘We usually repaired to [the] Main Street door and the fantastic coffee shop. Once more the open fire was a feature with the enigmatic painting above. Did that guy have three legs?’

He goes on to recall: ‘How that coffee shop survived is a mystery. It was always packed but how we could make that coffee or coke last. Margaret must have had the patience of Job to put up with us.’

I too sang in the bar and in the café I knew how to make that coffee last too, and I too asked, ‘Did that guy have three legs?’

The coffee shop was next door to the YMCA, which served as the parish hall, and where I was on the committee and organised poetry readings and folk evenings – an early star attraction was Billy Roche.

Back in the coffee shop in White’s, the large image over the open fire that caused us to tease one another to Margaret’s delight was a print of ‘The Peasant Wedding,’ a 1567 painting by the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca 1525/1530-1569), and one of his many paintings depicting peasant life.

A copy hung over the open fire in White’s coffee shop, but the original is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Pieter Bruegel the Elder enjoyed painting peasants and different aspects of their lives in so many of his paintings that he has been called Peasant-Bruegel. But he was an intellectual, and many of his paintings have a symbolic meaning as well as a moral aspect.

Pieter Bruegel was the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting and a pioneer in making both landscapes and peasant life his focus in large paintings. He was one of the first generation of artists to grow up when religious subjects had ceased to be the natural subject matter of painting.

After his training and travelling to Italy, he returned in 1555 to settle in Antwerp. He is sometimes referred to as ‘Peasant Bruegel,’ to distinguish him from the many later painters in his family, including his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638).

In ‘The Peasant Wedding,’ the Bride is in front of the green textile wall-hanging, with a paper-crown hung above her head. She is also wearing a crown on her head, and she is sitting passively, not participating in the eating or drinking taking place around her.

The Bridegroom is not seen at of the wedding feast, although he may be the man pouring out beer, or serving the food. Others argue that the groom is the man in the centre of the painting, wearing a dark coat and seen in profile, or the ill-bred son of a wealthy couple, seen against the far wall, to the right of the bride, eating with a spoon. Another theory suggests the groom is the young man wearing a red cap, who is serving his guests the food, handing out plates to his guests.

The feast is in a barn in summertime. Two sheaves of grain with a rake recall the work involved in harvesting and the hard life of peasants. Other features in the scene include two pipers, a boy with breeches in the foreground licking a plate, and a wealthy man at the far right feeding a dog by putting bread on a bench.

The plates are carried on a door off its hinges – and, yes, art historians agree that there is a mysterious extra foot under the load of dishes being carried by the two men in the right foreground.

Some critics argue that this painting represents the Wedding of Cana in Saint John’s Gospel. Others suggest that the painting is a Christian allegory symbolising corruption, or depicts the corrupt Church, supposed to be the bride of Christ, before the groom arrives for the bride.

And that, in another way, prepares me for tomorrow morning’s Gospel reading (Matthew 25: 1-13).

The YMCA was next door to White’s coffee shop … and the venue for poetry readings and folk evenings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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