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March 16, 2006

Carnival and Lent: Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Battle between Carnival and Lent makes apt social comment for the twenty-first century

Posted by Roger Homan

Prof. Roger Homan - the author of The Art of the Sublime: Principles in Christian Art & Architecture - argues that the social comment in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Battle between Carnival and Lent remains apt for today.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Battle between Carnival and Lent, 1559
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Gluttony, 1557
Frits Lugt Collection, Paris

Bruegel's Battle between Carnival and Lent personifies and juxtaposes Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. The two days had come to signify contrary dispositions to the Catholic Church and the discipline it imposed on its faithful.

In the Netherlands of the fourteenth century, Shrove Tuesday was observed as a final fling before the month of abstinence. By the following century it had degenerated somewhat and had become a kind of public orgy. The Catholic Church - to which Bruegel belonged - disapproved of it, taking the discipline of fasting more seriously. The protestant reformers, however, were ever ready to expose the hypocrisy of Catholic disciplines and welcomed the persistence of the carnival which signified an unsettlement of the authority of Rome in Europe.

Bruegel does not take sides. Rather, he finds fault in the extremes of both. The Shrove Tuesday party is led by Prince Carnival sitting on a beer barrel and wearing an extravagant dress of red, white and blue, the seams of which are strained to the limit by his pot belly. He holds a pig's head on a spit and on his head, evidently held in reserve for when he gets hungry, is a large pie. Among his followers one has waffles in his hatband. Gluttony is not alone among the vices current in this group: one figure gambles with dice and playing cards attest to time irresponsibly spent. The popular play being acted is identifiable as The Dirty Bride; the leading lady is seen hastening impatiently to a marital bed on the bare earth. Bruegel had already conveyed his view of the inter-relatedness of the vices in an engraving of 155. This shows how gluttony leads to a more general degrading of the person and illustrates a contemporary Flemish rhyme that we might render thus:

Too much food is dangerous
and too much drink's a snare;
You'll start forgetting where you are
and forget that God is there.
Ash Wednesday in The Battle between Carnival and Lent, by contrast, is a haggard figure who carries a bunch of dead twigs, a symbol of human degradation. She is followed by children representing folly and vanity.

Beyond its critiques of formal obligation and free licence, however, the painting regards qualities of life engendered by fasting and feasting. It disapproves of both. The figures who come into the square from the church door are emaciated and grey. The carnival group have suffered by their indulgence. Neither fasting nor excess has brought contentment. Its title notwithstanding, this is no more an image of Lent than of any other season. Its references to the world of work embrace the whole cycle of the year. It takes more than forty days to lose or gain the weight of the characters in this drama. So this is a comment on lifestyles.

It is of course unashamedly an exaggeration but it is also a misleading distortion. The artist presents no moderation between unremitting abstinence and excessive indulgence. Lent is conveyed as the Church's cruel repression. But the discipline commended by, say, Thomas Kempis and the Holy Qur'an is not a negation of life so much as an enhancement of it. Nowadays, Lenten abstinence has parallels in the secular sphere: dieting, detoxification and exercise at the gym are not undertaken as pleasures in themselves but as the means to an agreeable end.

Bruegel's representation is of a travesty of Lent. No more would a modern health farm want for its promotional material the picture that he gives of the faithful leaving church. In both regimes discipline in habits of consumption is potentially enhancing and it is to Islam that we may look for the survival of such a month as Lent was intended to be.

Seasonal fasting during Lent and on Fridays no longer has a high-profile among the obligations enjoined by the Christian churches. Even the period of abstention before making communion has been drastically reduced. The place of these observances has been taken by a new secular and scientific morality, the discipline of diet. It borrows even the vocabulary of Christian morality. "I'm going to be very good", says one's dining companion when declining to choose from the dessert menu. "Naughty but nice", one reads as a description. There is an appeal to "spoil yourself". Confections come with names that share the very contempt for restraint that is displayed by the carnival group in Bruegel's picture: "Death by chocolate". One has had the opportunity to choose from a range of Magnum ice creams bearing the names of the seven deadly sins and there is a box of chocolates called Temptations.

Now the gurus of political correctness would have it that names used in jest convey profound messages. If so, beneath the veneer of levity is a contempt of discipline and morality to match that of Prince Carnival. The observance of Lent is succeeded by the moralizing institutions of health education which now have the patronage of government. Carnival has been taken over by commercial interests which operate by connecting with an instinct to scorn the moralizers. As a social comment on the early years of the twenty-first century, Bruegel has got it about right.

Roger Homan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Brighton and author of The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art & Architecture, (Ashgate, 2006).

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"the Holy Qur'an"

That would be this book, would it?

The link is to a site maintained by the courageous Ali Sina, an ex-Muslim. Frankly, I've heard just enought cant about the "Holy Koran" to last me a lifetime.

And it is not only the West that is threatend by this totalitarian system that has no respect for life. Some 60-70 million Hindus lost their lives when Islam penetrated the sub-continent - more stand to in the future.

So please, no more cant about "the Holy Koran".

Posted by: Damian at March 16, 2006 11:46 AM

Had Damian read the Holy Bible he might have found just as much bigotry and violence as in the Holy Koran -- or even more. Both contain sublime and wise passages as well. But the Bible is a long book and he may be too busy protecting us from Muslims.

As for Professor Holman, please give us more of these interesting and well-written pieces. They are a genuine delight.

Posted by: s masty at March 18, 2006 12:48 PM

Here are two bits from the Bible that are most relevant to the situation. First, Ecclesiastes 7:16-18;

Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself? Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time? It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all.

Secondly, Luke 7:31-35;

And the Lord said, Whereunto then shall I liken the men of this generation? and to what are they like? They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept. For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil. The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners! But wisdom is justified of all her children.

Someone, somewhere, must have lost the plot.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 18, 2006 04:54 PM

Not interested in inter religious warfare however it is important to remember;

Islam is essentially a religion of *the book*,
Jesus of Nazareth promoted no such document.

Those moved to attempt the kind of life or loving that J.of.Naz. promoted, were already being murdered by their thousands, long before those called 'church fathers' had set up any kind of 'religious organization', and how many centuries was it before any of them read or acquired the *book* (bible) offered by that organization?

Thus comparisons between 'books', are quite out of order.

Comparisons between those two *leaders*, Jesus and Muhammad, however, do make sense, & I recommend it as an exercise, using all available information, dating from the time of the life, of each one, until the present day.

Posted by: ensnaturae at March 26, 2011 03:26 PM
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