|“The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”|
Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1559. (Museum of Art History, Vienna)
Copyright © Edward Riojas
Pieter Bruegel the Elder pretty much nailed it on the head.
I have always loved the artist’s use of rich, earth colors – especially his reds. Bruegel’s penchant for focusing on the rusticated life of country folk usually brings out an attractive warmth in the genre, but this image takes a step toward symbolism that leaves the viewer extremely uncomfortable.
In spite of a mass of evenly distributed figures, there is polarity in the painting. On the left is an inn, around which hover revelers. On the right is a church, from which issues alms-giving penitents.
Front and center in the composition is a portly, bacchanal figure astride a large barrel. He is the embodiment of Carnival, with all its wanton vices. Facing him is “Lady Lent” – gaunt, and miserable, and nearly as ridiculous as her festive counterpart.
In the shadowy interior of the church, shrouded statues of saints – common Lenten practice for the time – occupy high places on the walls. Meanwhile, a crucifix rests on a cushion on the floor.
This painting is simply unnerving. One needn’t dig into the mountain of symbolism it contains to immediately understand it’s point. The pull between the Old Adam and the New is a massive struggle. The artist has nearly given us a hideous shopping list of the foolishness of man. But Carnival isn’t necessary. Humankind doesn’t need to invent things for which to be later penitent – sin will always revel this side of heaven, even without our trying.