This beautifully preserved picture, recently judged by Klaus Ertz to be of masterly quality ('meisterlicher Qualität'), is one of Brueghel's finest re-interpretations of his father's work and the only known fully autograph version of the subject remaining in private hands. The picture is based on Pieter Brueghel the Elder's iconic work in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, that is dated 1559 (inv. no. 1016). Five versions of the composition are recorded by Ertz, of which only this and the picture recently acquired by the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, he considers to be fully autograph (K. Ertz, op. cit., pp. 253-4, nos. E183-7). The version sold at Christie's, New York, 31 May 1989, lot 88, is now thought by Ertz to have been painted with participation from his assistants, while another, somewhat damaged variant in the Narodowe Museum, Cracow, is clearly a studio work. A less well-known, fifth version, recorded at Welbeck Abbey, is also thought to be from the studio.
The Battle between Carnival and Lent shows an extraordinarily encyclopaedic overview of folkloric Flemish customs around the central clash between the two opposing liturgical seasons - Carnival on the left and Lent on the right. Carnival was the season of sensual indulgence - of eating, drinking and merrymaking before the onset of Lenten fasting and penitence. He is here shown riding a beer barrel, brandishing a roasting spit as a lance and using cooking pots for stirrups. He is followed by a crowd of revellers making their way from the natural habitat of the tavern. His adversary Lent is personified as a nun brandishing a baker's peel. The beehive she wears (a symbol of the Catholic Church) is decorated with a pretzel, a typically plain Lenten food. She offers two meagre herrings; inexpensive fish provided a staple diet during Lent when the eating of meat and other delicacies was forbidden. Her home is the church and she is followed by an entourage who perform acts of penitence and charity.
The well in the centre divides the painting along culinary lines: the pig of the Carnival emerges on the left, while Lenten fish are sold at the right. Among Carnival's followers, 'Rough Music' is played on a kitchen grill and a rommelpot, a jug beaten with a spoon and covered by leather to amplify the sound. The disguises of several Carnival Mummers are also taken from the kitchen: a necklace of eggs, and a kettle-helmet. Nearby, a woman bakes waffles over a wood fire. Waffles were Carnival specialities forbidden after Lent had begun. In the lower left corner, gamblers play dice, dressed in disguise according to Carnival fashion. The man hooded in waffles is probably a waffle baker. At this time bakers would take to the street, wagering their waffles against all comers. His opponent in black is dressed as one of the 'Carnival devils'. The child at the lower left wears a paper crown as his Carnival costume. These were fashioned from popular woodcuts, made to celebrate the Epiphany ('Three Kings Night') and were both inexpensive and widely circulated. Only a few have survived.
In the tavern on the left people are watching a performance of 'The Dirty Bride', a farce mocking the love of an unappealing rustic couple. In front of the second tavern beyond, actors perform one of the popular plays about wild men, perhaps the well-known 'Orson and Valentine'. On a barrel around the corner, a man drinks heartily to the delight of surrounding children, who cry 'The king drinks!'. The man emerging from the second-storey window above empties a bucket of slops on top of him. Nearer the foreground cripples wearing fox-tails as marks of their presumed deceitfulness perform their grotesque dance for alms during the Carnival time.
In the centre of the painting a fool crosses the city square carrying a torch. In Brueghel's time, torches lit in daylight were used to symbolise the folly of the Carnival: 'Bringing daylight out into the sun', for example, was a proverb illustrated by both Brueghel the Younger and his father.
On the Lenten side to the right, a sermon has ended in the church, and the congregation departs. Several devout women, probably Beguines, emerge through the front portal. They have attended a Lenten service (the statues are covered within the church), but lack the ashen crosses on their foreheads, found in Brueghel the Elder's paintings, which identifies the day as Ash Wednesday. From the north portal a second audience departs. They have celebrated Palm Sunday and hold in commemoration small branches, palms being hard to obtain in the Netherlands. Theirs is a modest congregation, for several of them carry their own chairs. Sickness and death are ever-present, invoking Lenten charity. Cripples and orphans are given alms, as is a mother whose husband's corpse (not visible in the present lot) occupies the lower right corner of the painting.
The exact meaning of Brueghel's subject has given rise to various different interpretations, including the possibility that the picture was actually meant to illustrate a general conflict between the Church and State or as a more specific battle between Luther and the Church (see K. Demus, in the catalogue of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, 1981). Ertz is less convinced by this political reading of the picture favouring the more conventional notion, first voiced by Bastelaer, that Brueghel was really providing a humorous overview of rural life during Carnival and Lent in a didactic and allegorical way (R. von Bastelaer, Les estampes de Pieter Brueghel l'ancien, Brussels, 1908). It seems likely that such mock jousts were actually enacted on Shrove Tuesday before the Lenten fast began and many of the other rituals and customs associated with the seasons are here visualised in this way. Ertz concludes: 'Das Gemälde wird lediglich als Verbildlichung von Brauchtum, allerdings in künstlerischer Komposition mit freschaffender Fiktion und mit ausgesprochener Spielabsicht des künstlers mit seinem Gegenstand, angesehen'.
The Battle between Carnival and Lent
Oil on canvas
THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
Pieter Brueghel II
Essen, Villa Hügel; Ruhr, Kulturstiftung; Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum; and Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere-Jan Brueghel der Ältere. Flamische Malerei um 1600 Tradition und Fortschritt, 1997-1998, no. 103.
Old Master & British Paintings
47 x 67 3/8 in. (119.4 x 171.2 cm.)
G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel Le Jeune, Brussels, 1969, p. 117.
K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere-Jan Brueghel der Ältere. Flamische Malerei um 1600 Tradition und Fortschritt, exhibition catalogue, Vienna and Antwerp, 1997-8, pp. 336-42, no. 103.
K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Lingen, 2000, I, p. 254, no. E186, and pp. 221, 225-6 and 245, figs. 181-2.
A.J.H. Repelaer van Spijkenisse collection, where first recorded in 1884.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, Amsterdam, 6 May 1993, lot 98, as 'Attributed to Pieter Brueghel II'.
with Johnny van Haeften, London, where acquired by the present owner in 1996.