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The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent
by Peter Bruegel (1525-1569)

118 x 164.5 cm oil on oak panel; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wein

Peter Bruegel's talent shines most brilliantly in grand-scale paintings of the anecdotal genre. In this masterpiece, Bruegel succeeds in creating a census-like inventory of all humanity, for which there is no counterpart in the entire scope of painting. As many of Bruegel's works were, this is much closer to caricature than idealisation. The painting is populated with plausible, solid people, social beings, set in a real urban environment instead of the harmonious, fluent, and artificial utopian frameworks of other artists.

Bruegel's life history consists mainly of guesswork. Most bibliographical information is obtained through Het Schilderboek (Harlem, 1604), or The Book of Painters, by Carel van Mander.

Some time during the 1520's in the tiny village of Brueghel, Peter was born. As was common at the time, especially among peasants who lacked a family name, he adopted the name of his birthplace. The exact location of the Brabant village is disputed but generally attributed to one of three small towns now situated in Belgium and Holland.

Bruegel apprenticed under a number of masters in the Antwerp guild but was most influenced by Hieronymous Bosch. He worked for Bosch on many of the master's paintings, mostly contributing in the spookish scenes of drollery that were so prevalent in Bosch. It is for this reason he is sometimes known as The Droll. The other great influence on Bruegel's work was his mother-in-law, who was an accomplished miniaturist.

Bruegel himself influenced a great many painters, many of whom were his own descendants through his two sons Pieter "Hell" and Jan "Velvet".

On 4 September 1569 Bruegel suddenly died, leaving a wealth of material, much of it with a religious theme, which would earn him the reputation as a master of literary painting. That reputation is marvelously evidenced by The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.

The painting is done in oil on a wood panel, signed and dated in 1559. Today it is on display at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. There is one reproduction which is disputed. Except for two landscapes dated 1553 and 1557, and The Blue Cloak of early 1559, this is Bruegel's earlist work, and his most ambitious ever.

Bruegel was not the first to make an artistic rendering of the mock battle. Frans Hogenberg had made an etching of the battle which was published in 1558 by Hieronymus Cock, and Bruegel used that as a starting point for his work. Both illustrate the popular late medieval comic parody of chivalric battles that was a traditional ingredient of Mardi Gras celebrations, in which Lent is defeated, sent into exile, and allowed back only during the Lenten period.

Bruegel was not interested in the parody as much as he was in the Catholic-Lutheran struggles that were forever exploding during his lifetime. The painting is almost an all-out attack against the Inquisition's routine punishment of people who did not follow the dietary guidelines of Lent.

A panoramic bird's-eye view of action and art, the painting shows people when they are least posed and most active. The backdrop is based on the medieval conception of space as the two dimensions of the vertical plane. The characters form a circular arrangement from which diagonals radiate in all directions. The tapestry designs of Sebastiano Serlio influenced this structure, which Bruegel went on to use often. The topographical precision can be attributed to the influence of Ortelius, a close friend of Bruegel and a "learned and admirable mathematician who with much honor to himself and to the satisfaction of all has figured forth the theater of the entire terrestrial globe." Ortelius said there is more thought than painting in Bruegel's work. This is easily recognisable to any one who looks at his paintings more than once, for each time the eye is fascinated and finds new details, all of which must have taken great pains to record.

The richness to Carnival and Lent is evidence of Bruegel's genius. He provides minutely realistic detail in a vastly complex composition. There is a swarming sense of lively movement, integrating a host of conflicting data--both pronounced and implied, using a simple yet subtle style, with clear yet cryptic symbols that provide both familiar and strange meanings--and there is never confusion.

By being inclusive rather than exclusive, Bruegel is able to create a lifelike picture of human personalities so that one can easily visualise the characters as they were in flesh and blood. All are subject to Bruegel's brush, whether "young or wasted by the years, healthy or infirm, frail or stalwart, well-built or mis-shapen, sad or merry, good Christians or sinners." He concerns himself with the daily process of living of ordinary inhabitants of a tranquil Flemish village--the ones who toil, suffer, and take their pleasures simply and anonymously, at the lowest social level--not those who shape the destinies of nations.

The simple peasants in the painting number about 170. They are gathered in the village square, some going about their chores, but most celebrating Shrove Tuesday, a spectacular occassion in the Netherlands in the fifteenth century. The three-day festival was a public orgy of frantic eating, drinking, and carousing that preceeded the forty days of Lent, a period of penitance. Mardi Gras was fiercely opposed by Catholics but favored by Lutherans who said it was a safety valve, while fasting and other piety was the hypocrisy of the Catholic church.

On the right side of the painting is Lent, a knife-faced woman dressed in mourning who Bruegel modeled after a Bosch witch. Lent is drawn on a cart by a nun and monk. In her left hand she carries a bundle of switches for scourging penitents, and with her right hand wards off her opponent with two herrings on a baker's paddle. She is followed by people who perform various acts of piety, from almsgiving to praying to burying the dead. Some, however, are busy making money or playing. A corpse in the wagon which the woman draws, along with numerous other cripples, have long since been painted over.

Lent's opponent, the fat King Carnival, sits astride a beer barrel and wields a pig on a spit. He does not seem to be enjoying himself and, combined with the tragic masks worn by his followers, a sense of pity is evoked. In truth they are having a great time mocking the piety and sour-faced restraint of those on Lent's side. His followers indulge themselves in eating pancakes, drinking beer, dancing, gambling, playing pranks, and making love. They ignore the cripples who can barely handle their crutches.

The only character who is obviously not a peasant is the burgher on the side of Lent. He has an expensive fur-lined black tunic, a rich purse, a prayer book in his pocket, and a soft leather cap atop hair that is cut like that of a scholar. But most importantly he has a servant, either a dwarf or boy who is carrying his church stool. The burgher has stopped to give money to a man without eyes.

Prurient gawkers enjoy "The Ugly Bride" or "Wedding of Mopsus and Nisa," a play being performed in front of the inn by strolling players. Across the street the play "Ourson and Valentin" is being performed, while around the corner admissions are being collected. Behind Carnival is a woman leaning over an improvised hearth to cook pancakes. On Lent's side a housewife approaches a fish stall to make her purchases.

Beggars and lepers abound, wearing foxtails, the symbol of beggars adopted by signatories of the Compromise. The symptoms of a great number of physical and mental diseases are faithfully rendered. Cripples suffer everything from spasmodic paraplegia to advanced locomoter ataxia, an outgrowth of syphillis, to maladies that waste and curl legs and result in four toes on each foot. Dr. T. M. Torrilhon says the afflictions are so accurately portrayed that they could not arise solely from Bruegel's imagination.

The couple in the center that is being led away by a fool is essential to understanding the painting, yet they seem to be detached from the surrounding activities. Attention is drawn to them only by their central placement.

Also in the middle of the painting is an oasis of yellow sand dappled with patches of pale green, on which the couple walks. This is a starting point for two major color schemes: grayish browns occur in the lower half while ocherous grays are displayed in the upper half. There are infinite nuances of color throughout, but Bruegel uses these two schemes to hold together the throng of motley characters.

While Bruegel does a magnificent job of displaying the topsy-turvy world of medieval Flemish village life, it is also true that Carnival and Lent functions on a symbolic level. As a whole the pettiness of man is shown in the face of a nature that is indifferent. Individually, Lent is representative of Catholicism, Ash Wednesday, and overzealous piety. Carnival represents the Lutheran movement, Shrove Tuesday, and the delights of self-indulgence.

The two corpses on the side of Lent suggest that, if not for fear of death, no one would be charitable or religious. "Blue Boat" or "Blue Barge" was the title of societies that organised carnival revelries, and so the front building on the side of Carnival is called the Inn of the Blue Boat. The children near the church play with tops which are symbols of the need to be chastised to avoid downfall.

The battle itself seems to be even. Each side holds some advantage over the other. Virtue is with Lent but the outcome is still uncertain. A game of breaking pots among Carnival's followers pushes beyond center to Lent's side. Beyond the bakery, which is neutral because it makes both pancakes and pretzels, the line of seperation stretches up the street, but is poorly defined. That is the street from which the people enter the circle of action, so followers of both sides are mixed.

Many things on the side of Lent evidence a false piety, showing that some men are as foolish in their religion as others are in their lack of it. But supportive of Lent's cause are the trees in the background, which have a spring-like green on the right but a barren gray on the left. However, the wealthy burgher seems to be moving toward the side of Carnival, and the inn is busier than the church. Just as the eye is pulled in different directions, so is the tide of victory.

The two people in the middle of the scene, then, are a summation couplet. They are the only ones not overshadowed by anything, including other meanings. Their sole purpose is to reveal Bruegel's main theme and the ultimate decision of the battle: no one will win because every one is a fool in one way or another.

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