The Temptations of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

A denizen of 16th-century Antwerp could indulge in the panoply of the seven deadly sins on a damp and dreary spring day before Lent. The great Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, for example, could have surveyed ships at the Scheldt docks bearing luxuries from across the European continent. That material abundance could have influenced his own vision of the spiritual consequences of material life. 

In Antwerp’s markets, the prideful could purchase tin-coated, fire-gilded mirrors from Venice in which the owner could admire ermine furs unloaded from Riga or Danzig; the slothful could choose linen beddings from nearby Haarlem. The wrathful could select an arquebus or rifle assembled by German craftsmen; and the gluttonous would have purchased herring smoked in Kalmar, beef salted in Bremen, sausages from Hamburg, and marzipan made in Lübeck, all garnished with good, local, Lambic beer. The lustful could peruse aphrodisiacal artichokes and fennel, garlic and truffles. For those whose hearts palpitated at all that glitters, there were Indian rubies and Persian turquoise, Afghan lapis lazuli and Red Sea peridot, and above all, diamonds, polished and set by the finest Dutch cutters. And then there were those with not a guilder to spare who could look on at the cacophony with only green, envious eyes. 

Known for his stunning landscapes and peasant scenes, Bruegel may have had this Antwerp in mind while rendering his 1558 woodcut series on the seven deadly sins. But it was a masterful painting from a year later that gives full expression to his vocabulary of temptation. 

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Detail of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” (1559) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Bruegel’s 1559 masterpiece “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” was rendered on oak planks from a single tree that had grown on the cold shores of the Baltic Sea. It depicts a Flemish marketplace that would have been familiar to his parents’ generation, but would have already become a sylvan, rusticated nostalgia for the painter’s audience. The sensory details, however, would be familiar both to his contemporaries and us. Within the hubbub of Bruegel’s market, all manner of dichotomies exist in tension: the conflict between joviality and piety, indulgence and abstention, temptation and repentance — even winter and spring, for the skeletal, barren trees on the left side of the almost four-by-six-foot composition contrast with the right’s budding branches.

Much as with his predecessor Hieronymus Bosch’s overly populated tableaus, so too does Bruegel’s composition crowd with a surfeit of activity: Around 200 people mill about the central gathering space. As historian Joseph Leo Koerner explained in Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (2017), the artist “exhibits … traditional choreography … [as] endlessly varied … always improvised, performance.” At a bakery, a woman in a simple white kerchief kneels and sets up a display of round, crusty pistolets, while her compatriot washes the upper window. Further towards the center of the scene, two fishmongers gut gray-scaled carp, while a monk hawks pretzels from a brown wicker basket. Life in its fleshy, protruding, stinking, earthy reality — a messy, confusing, and beautiful scene. 

But that crush of humanity is not quite what draws the spectator’s attention. Bruegel’s painting is dominated by a literalization of its central theme: At the foreground, a zestful embodiment of Carnival — a debaucherous annual celebration — faces off against the personification of dour Lent, depicted seconds before lance pierces shield. Carnival is a fat butcher, outfitted in red tights and a blue shirt taut against the girth of his substantial belly. His martial sled is a giant beer cask, his stirrup a cooking pot. He is a mass of sweaty, hairy flesh. His retinue, a motley assortment of masked jesters and dunce-capped clowns, their path strewn with playing cards, bones, cakes, and eggshells, emanates from the tavern that dominates the far left of the painting. 

This army’s opponent approaches from the right, Lent being a gaunt, viridescent woman in a habit pulled in a wagon by a monk and nun, brandishing a spatula upon which sit two paltry herring. She is a quiver of bony, emaciated cartilage. Attended by children whose foreheads are smeared with the sable cross of Ash Wednesday, this army marches from the gothic cathedral surrounded by relic salesmen and flagellants on the far right. 

“The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” is sometimes interpreted as about the conflict between sensual Medieval Catholicism, with its feast days and relics, and austere Reformation Protestantism, the domain of Puritans and iconoclasts. But it actually serves to enact a representation of the more flexible understanding of personal morality that reigned before modernity. This might seem surprising for those of us who’ve inherited the libel that “Medieval” is a synonym for barbarity. But in the 16th century, a theological shift saw the embrace of a moral code that was simultaneously less forgiving of and lacking in the psychological sophistication of the seven deadly sins. That system of analyzing behavior in terms of pride, sloth, wrath, gluttony, greed, lust, and envy was one that acknowledged our propensity to such things, while also granting that these vices are intrinsic. By Bruegel’s century, the seven deadly sins as moral explanation was eclipsed by the absolutism of the Bible’s Ten Commandments. John Bossy notes in Christianity in the West, 1400–1700 (1985) that “in exchanging the Seven Sins for the Ten Commandments, Christians had acquired a moral code which was stronger on obligations to God… narrower on obligations to the neighbor, and in both directions more precise, more penetrative, and more binding.” There is a binary to murder, theft, and adultery that makes those prohibitions easier to avoid, whereas the seven deadly sins’ demands to avoid gluttony, lust, and sloth are on a spectrum — a more difficult code that necessitates visionary forgiveness. 

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Detail of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” (1559) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Bruegel is adept in ambiguities, privy to the easy slide between sinfulness and saintliness — see how the baker and the fishmonger are caught in the painting’s center, split between the kingdoms of Carnival and Lent, as all of us are. “Birth is fraught with death,” writes Mikhail Bakhtin of the literary mode also called the “carnivalesque” in books such as Rabelais in his World (1940), “and death with new birth.” Breugel recognized the intimacy between the psychological associations of Lent and Carnival: each requires the other to contrast with and mark the borders of their own domains. They are not synonymous with “good” and “evil” — indeed, different people might affix either with one or the other — but rather reciprocal aspects of our psyche and behavior. 

Such a vision is one of negative capability, comfortable with the polyphonous complexity of motivations, of triumphs and failings. Bruegel’s moral imagination embraces what I’d call sympathetic debauchery, where the figures in Carnival’s army can decamp for Lent’s realm, and vice versa. He was a masterful conveyer of both the connections and conflicts between body and spirit. He is the fleshy prodigy of the soul, capable of expressing the subtle interlacing of salvation and sin. “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” exemplifies an empathetic understanding of human frailty, ironically more sophisticated than those offered by the new Reformation and Counter-Reformation. What is most remarkable about Bruegel’s eerie, uncanny fever dream is that he offers us no interpretation, no side onto which to project our sympathies. In the fight between Carnival and Lent, humans must endeavor to be partisans of both.  

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