Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca 1525-1569), The Fight between Carnival and Lent, 1559, oil on panel, 118 x 165 cm.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The painting is an allegorical imagery of human duplicity and wickedness, where Bruegel combines and likewise confronts religion and folklore. In the Southern Netherlands, a yearly festival was commonly celebrated the day before the beginning of Lent, a period of religious compliance and of abstinence from gluttony, during which eating fish instead of meat was strongly recommended and alcoholic drinks were prohibited. This sudden abstinence gave as a countermove birth to Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day of carnival, a day of pleasure and popular jollity often turning into excesses and some public orgy, …just prior to the very first day of well-ordered benevolence and ritual fasting.
The painting depicts the moment two rival processions, those of Carnival and of Lent, both with their own leader bearing a specific lancelike weapon converge on the cross-roads, in the middle of a busy village market-place. However, this competition is devoid of any sign of aggression, indeed incompatible with Bruegel’s concepts.
Carnival is personified by a potbellied man riding a beer barrel. He is wearing a huge meat pie as a head-dress and is brandishing a lance, in fact a long roasting spit, with a pig’s head, a chicken, sausages and some small game impaled. Behind the barrel, a man with a pointed hat is dressed in a yellow outfit, which colour is usually associated with treachery. He is followed by a black-clad woman carrying on her head a table with bread and waffles, and holding in one hand a tumbler glass, in the other a candle, symbols of duplicity and deceit. Nearby, a man covered with a small cooking pot is playing lute, which performance is often associated with Protestant Reformation, having abolished Lent but still celebrating Carnival. To the left of the lute-player, a female figure wears a string of eggs, eggs like meat being restricted during the fasting period. Near the inn full of raucous drunkards, onlookers watch a group of street performers staging a popular theatrical farce, called The Dirty Bride. The play ridicules the wedding of a middle-aged bad-looking woman with dishevelled hair and clothes, dragging a pinhead towards a fortune tent. On either side of the play, a musician in blue and a choirboy stir up the ambient feeling of derision.
While the left-hand half of the painting displays features of Carnival, the right-hand half is devoted to Lent, the period of abstinence and altruism, with its specific attributes. Lent is personified by an emaciated female, robed like a nun and wearing a beehive as a head-dress. She is sitting on a church chair mounted on a cart with a few traditional lenten food bits. The cart is drawn by a monk and a nun, and like her counterpart, the Carnival fat man, the bizarre cart-rider is also brandishing a lance, but in fact not more than a baker’s shovel containing two small herrings. Her wagon is followed by youngsters feeding on bread. During the fasting period, generosity is a duty alongside abstinence and therefore, at the middle right, a gentleman is about to give a coin to a blind man, but is straightaway accosted by other handicapped alms-seekers and deprived people. At the far right, black-veiled women leave the church having honoured their daily religious commitments.
In the centre of the painting, an intriguing scene seems unrelated to the Carnival-Lent fight. A conclusive explanation for the scene has still not been found. Nonetheless, Bruegel has conferred a special interest to this scene by placing it in the centre and surrounding it by a clearly lighter street colour. In broad daylight, a fool is guiding a couple with a burning torch. All three are shown with their backs to the viewer. Under his clothes the man distinctly carries a hidden sack, while the woman carries an unlit lantern hanging at her belt. It has been suggested that the scene might symbolize dispute and extinction.
Carnival was denounced by the Catholic Church, but cherished by the protestant reformers, always eager to criticize the hypocrisy of Catholic regulations and therefore contrarily condoning the popular feast as a means to advocate disruption of the authority of Rome. Bruegel does not take sides and equally denounces in this painting the excesses of both Carnival and Lent.
For several details of the painting, see next pictures