Shrove Tuesday is nearly upon us so it seems appropriate to take a look at Brueghel's brilliantly detailed masterpiece. Every time we look at it we see something new.
The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Brueghel the Elder
1559, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Pieter Breughel the Elder (1525-1530) is considered the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting. He is particularly well-known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. The Fight Between Carnival and Lent was composed in Antwerp in 1559 at the height of the Protestant Reformation.
What can we see?
A busy town square filled with crowds of people dressed in late Medieval costume. To the left there’s a tavern hosting a festive parade; to the right a church with a line of sombre worshippers. In the foreground there is a mock battle between a fat man with a pork pie on his head and a lanky, gaunt figure dressed as a nun on a modest wooden chair. The fat man wields a long skewer with pieces of roast meat on it, the thin woman a long paddle with two small fish on the end. The Figures are dressed up to embody Carnival and Lent.
The painting juxtaposes Carnival (Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday) with all its indulgence and pleasure, and Lent (beginning on Ash Wednesday) a period of deprivation marked by abstinence and fasting.
On the Lent side (right) – there are people dressed in ordinary clothes who are carrying pretzels and bread and there are plenty of fish (food you are permitted to eat in Lent). Amongst numerous details on the Lent side you can spot a woman cleaning windows – careful days – one might say –rather than negligent ones.
On the Carnival side (left) – there are plenty of waffles, pancakes and sausages (meat). The figures are dressed up in fancy costumes and masks and are shown indulging and behaving badly (spot the man vomiting from a window).
There are nearly 200 people in this riotous picture and it is an allegorical delight, rich with symbolism. Have a look at some of the extraordinary details while eating your pancakes and possibly considering what you are going to give up for Lent.
Anya Waddington 18 January 2023