To mark Shrovetide this week’s picture is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s teeming panorama of sixteenth-century life, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, which was painted in 1569 and can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
The setting is the main square of an unspecified Flemish town. For all the fascinatingly minute detail of the painting (its nearly two hundred individual figures mean that a magnifying glass, or even microscope, is needed when looking at it in reproduction) everything is subordinated to a single guiding theme. The artist’s subject is a threshold between two cycles in the liturgical calendar, the moment when the last feast of winter must give way to Lenten fasting. Self-indulgence, hilarity and excess are set against self-denial and sobriety: a conflict epitomised by the mock battle taking place in the foreground of the picture, where two figures on floats, comically dressed up to embody Carnival and Lent respectively, are propelled towards each other by their followers like the combatants in a parodic joust.
The literal meaning of Carnival is “farewell to meat”, from the Latin carnem levare. Its origins are murky but may lie in the Roman Saturnalia, although it was only in the later Middle Ages that it became an established end-of-winter festival, allowing the people at large a brief moment of gluttony, laughter, drunkenness and controlled (sometimes barely controlled) anarchy before the penitential and ascetic rituals of Lent, shadowed by the solemn awareness of Christ’s crucifixion. Bruegel’s Carnival and Lent offers among other things a fascinating compendium of folkloric custom. The figure of Carnival himself, appropriately corpulent, sits astride a beer barrel with a pork chop attached to its front end and a cooking pot hanging from its side as an improvised stirrup. His helmet is a meat pie, his lance a spit on which a partially devoured suckling pig is skewered, together with pieces of chicken and beef and sundry sausages.. The pouch of knives at his belt indicate that he is a butcher by trade (the guild of butchers traditionally provided the meat for the Carnival feast, so it makes sense that one of their number should occupy pride of place in the procession). Behind this precariously seated lord of misrule, snaking back through the town square on the left side of the canvas, Bruegel fills the scene with vignettes of typically carnivalesque activity. Masked and costumed revellers brandish items associated with Shrovetide fun and games, such as the griddle which one of them plays with a pocket knife, as if its cast-iron bars were the strings of a harp. Just behind them a woman is baking waffles over a wood fire, while in the lower left-hand corner of the scene one of two men gambling at dice appears to have strapped three of those waffles to his head, perhaps because he is using them – a common custom at the time – as his stake in the game. Close by stands a tavern, filled with drunks and gawpers who are watching the performance of a popular farce known as The Dirty Bride. At the street crossing, a band of cripples have come out to beg, while behind them, outside another inn, another theatrical entertainment is taking place. Led by a bagpiper, a procession of lepers winds past.
The right hand side of the painting is given over to Lent, whose part is played in the mock-contest by a gaunt and emaciated figure dressed up as a nun and wearing as her crown a beehive, symbol of the Church. Her lance is a wooden oven peel bearing a pair of herrings, while her followers brandish pretzels and dry bread, the traditionally meagre foodstuffs of Lent. Opposite the tavern, on Lent’s side of the picture there stands a church, from which worshippers spill out, the dark smear of ashes (a mark of penitence) on their foreheads. Just inside the entrance a veiled statue can be seen, hanging on one of the pillars of the nave. It was customary to cover up all the works of art in church at Lent until Easter Sunday – when, in celebration of Christ’s resurrection, the carved and painted figures of saints and prophets would be triumphantly unveiled, brought back to life like the Saviour himself.
The artist lived at a time of great religious upheaval, when the Protestant Reformation was in full swing, and when many of the old customs were coming under threat. The Catholic attachment to Lenten rites of observance was heavily criticised by the Protestant reformers, while the spirit of Carnival was being crushed by those in authority on both sides of the religious divide. Catholic authorities became suspicious of Carnival because its parodies of church ritual seemed suddenly more pointed and subversive after the assaults of Luther and Calvin; while Protestant church leaders, for their part, disliked its spirit of excess and indulgence, distrusted its theatricality, and abominated its pagan origins. Bruegel’s view of the customs that he so vividly recreated is hard to establish, although there is a clue perhaps in the elevated perspective from which he has chosen to look down on the scene. I suspect his attitude to popular faith and festivity may have been one of amused but affectionate detachment – touched, too, by nostalgia for a world that was disappearing even as he painted it.