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The Battle between Carnival and Lent

About the item

To any person, young or old, living in the southern Netherlands at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the spectacle of the great Shrovetide carnival that heralded the coming of Lent would have been a very familiar sight. That it remains so to this day is perhaps the most remarkable testament to the enduring popularity of this composition, one of the greatest of all Breughelian themes. Far more than just a semi-encyclopaedic depiction of all the many customs and pieces of folklore associated with the Shrovetide festival, it is its ability to remind us of the basic contrasts and contradictions in human nature - the compassionate and the devout as well as the gluttonous and the foolish - that has kept its meaning fresh for over four and a half centuries.\nThe composition of the present work is derived from the celebrated painting of 1559 by Pieter Breugel the Elder today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (fig. 1). Five versions of the composition by Pieter Brueghel the Younger are known.  One version is on canvas: that sold London, Christie's, 6 December 2011, lot 17 (for £6,873,250). Four are on panel: the present painting, another in Krakow, Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie, another in Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, and the last formerly in the Portland collection sold London, Christie's, 7 December 2010, lot 15 (for £1,750,000)1. None of the group is signed or dated, but recent dendrochronological analysis of the ex-Portland version indicates a probable date of execution around 1603. The exceptional state of preservation of this picture singles it out as probably the finest of the versions of this composition on panel, if not of the whole group.The richness of detail, the finesse of execution and the unusually fine characterisation of the figures in the present panel would also argue for an early dating.\nThe subject of this painting provides us with an all-encompassing overview of the customs and rituals taking place at one of the great social events in the late medieval calendar, Shrovetide. Here the last excesses and sensual indulgences of Carnival give way to the enforced abstinence and spiritual observances of Lent, the period in the Christian calendar that commemorated the forty days and nights spent by Jesus in the desert. The symbolic combat itself that takes place between Carnival and Lent is taken from a Shrovetide play which would have been performed by a carnival brotherhood of mummers or players. Such a tradition had its roots way back in thirteenth-century Burgundy, but the nature of its representation and interpretation were to be dramatically changed by the Brueghels.\nWhat for earlier artists had been a representation of an old play, popular in many countries, with only a few actors taking part, has become in the hands of the Brueghels an occasion to depict in detail not only all the Netherlandish Shrovetide customs but also, and most importantly, to paint a picture of human life, balancing both its vivacity and self-indulgence with its more sombre side, including sickness, poverty and death. The setting - the market and church square of a town - is divided into contrasting halves like a Mystery Play stage, in which the mummers perform their play while everyday life goes on around them. The design is a genuine source of the forms of Shrovetide customs, and according to folklore research, the costumes and processions are accurately portrayed down to the smallest details.2  The Church is set opposite the inn, with the good deeds (acts of mercy) of the pious contrasted with mankind's indulgence in sinful pleasures: dancing, gluttony, gambling and the neglect of the poor. This contrast takes symbolic form in the combat in the foreground of the painting that gives the picture its name. The corpulent Prince Carnival is pitted against the skinny figure of Lent in a joust. The former rides a beer barrel with cooking pots for stirrups, his lance a roasting spit. His opponent Lent, pulled by a monk and a nun, is dressed as a nun wearing a beehive (a symbol of the Catholic Church), and brandishes a baker's peel and two meagre herrings - an inexpensive fish that provided a staple diet during Lent when the eating of meat was forbidden. Behind the principal protagonists the town square divides into two parts, with the left hand side representing Carnival and the right hand side Lent. Thus the Camel tavern faces the church, while in the space between and the streets beyond we are presented with a bird's eye view of a teeming panorama of every kind of activity and custom associated with the season. The dividing point and the centre of the composition is a well, with Lenten fish being sold on one side of it, while on the other a pig snuffles in the mud, pointing to the carnival revellers. Just behind this a man dressed as a Fool passes by holding a torch. To Brueghel's viewers a torch lit in daytime symbolised folly, and both father and son used them to illustrate the proverb 'bringing daylight out into the sun' warning of unnecessary acts of stupidity. The fool crosses the path of two people with their backs turned away from us, as though in warning or representing a choice.\nOn the left hand side of the painting we see the topsy-turvy world of the followers of Carnival. In the lower left hand corner gamblers play at dice, dressed in disguise according to Carnival fashion. The man hooded in waffles is probably a waffle baker, who would at this time take to the street wagering waffles against all comers. His opponent here is a man dressed in black, one of the Carnival 'devils'. Such disguises, however, offered perfect cover to thieves and earned the disapproval of the civic authorities. Behind them the comically appointed followers of Prince Carnival are led by a figure playing a rommel pot, while to their side stands a child wearing a paper crown as their Carnival costume. In the tavern behind customers watch a performance of 'The Dirty Bride', a popular farce mocking the love of an unfashionable rustic couple, seemingly oblivious to the bagpiper who vomits upon them from the floor above. Behind them a group of cripples perform a curious dance, but the fox tails attached to their costumes indicate that they are deceitful. In front of a second tavern beyond actors perform one of the popular plays about wild men, perhaps the well-known Orson and Valentine, a piece made popular from the first half of the 16th century. On the corner a man stands upon a barrel drinking, to the delight of the surrounding children, who cry 'Le roi boit' even as a man on an upper storey window empties his slop bucket on the head of the unsuspecting drinker. Opposite them a woman on a ladder cleans the windows of her house, her vain task symbolised by the dummy sitting on the window ledge above her. In the far streets a fire is lit, symbolic of the ending of Carnival.\nOn the Lenten side of the composition on the right, a sermon has ended in the church, and the congregation departs in two orderly files. From the main doorway several devout women emerge, probably Beguines, walking behind a wealthy merchant who is distributing alms to the poor and the lame. The latter beseech the alms-givers from both sides as they exit the church, although even here amongst their ranks the figure of a Fool can be detected. From the side door comes a file of worshippers who hold small branches in their hands, thus indicating that they have been celebrating Palm Sunday. That this was a Lenten service is confirmed by the covered statues visible inside the church portals. These various acts of compassion and charity are, of course, in stark contrast to the wild and worldly goings-on across the square.\nAlthough he has for the most part followed his father's design, Pieter Brueghel the Younger's painting here does differ in several details.3  Most noticeably, the corpse visible in the lower right corner of this painting has been painted over in that of his father, no doubt at the wish of a later owner. The same has happened to the two children sleeping by the church doors and the elderly cripple being pulled in a box near the well. The tavern sign on the left, for example, has also been brought up to date, with the 'Camel' replacing the original 'Blue Boat'. This tends to suggest that the old allegorical associations with the latter, the Blauwe schuit, in which the vessel would have been regarded as akin to the Ship of Fools, flagship and emblem of the foolish, have been abandoned. It is quite possible that Pieter Brueghel the Younger may simply have intended a less admonitory tone in his work, seeking to concentrate upon the customs and folklore of the Carnival rather than producing a sermon in paint.\nThe question of the 'meaning' of the Battle between Carnival and Lent has, of course, been the subject of exhaustive scholarly discussion. It has been suggested, for example, that the picture is meant to illustrate the conflict between Church and State, or even between Luther and the Church4.  It is probably wisest to defend it against the widespread tendency to impute some moral satire or religious and political criticism, for it is extremely doubtful that it was ever intended to be read as such. This is not to say that the Brueghels'  views on the nature of human folly were not deeply held, but rather that their observations were always cloaked in humour and never overtly negative, such criticism always being balanced by a clear love of the foibles as well as the dignity of the human condition. As the figure in the lower right hand corner serves to remind us, whether devout or sinner, glutton or penitent, the same fate awaits us all.\n\n1.  K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Lingen 1988/2000, vol. I, pp. 253-4, cat. nos. E.183-6 and F1187, reproduced figs. 179, 180 and 182. Ertz's suggestion that the present work contains some workshop participation seems wholly unfounded. That in Krakow is more generally accepted as being of part workshop quality, but its poor condition precludes judgement from photographs.\n2.  For the most comprehensive discussion see K. Demus, F. Klauner and K. Schutz, Flämische Malerei von Jan van Eyck bis Pieter Bruegel d. Ä., Museum catalogue, Vienna 1981, pp. 61 et seq.\n3.  These are most clearly illustrated and discussed by Ertz, op. cit., 1998/2000, pp. 245-247, fig. 183. Ertz lists some thirty differences in all.\n4.  Demus, op. cit., 1981, pp. 62-3.


Recent dendrochronological examination of this lot undertaken by Ian Tyers shows that the support consists of four boards of Baltic oak cut from trees with a probable felling date of around 1594. This would suggest a probable date of execution for the present panel to the middle or second half of the first decade of the 17th century. This analysis matches very closely those for the panels of the Brussels and ex-Portland versions of this composition as well as other Brueghel panels of this date, and strongly suggests a very close relationship in their common production.A copy of Ian Tyers' report is available for inspection upon request.  


Oil on oak panel


Pieter Brueghel


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's. This remarkably well preserved painting is on a fine oak panel laid within a tray behind, although unattached. There are three original joints: the central joint having only a minimal line of retouching with slight old retouched damage in the fishmonger’s slab in the centre and occasionally also towards the right end. However the fine craquelure is intact elsewhere right up to the line of the joint itself. The upper joint is also well preserved on the left, having just a narrow line of retouching, with one or two little flakes retouched by the central dancing group and a cluster near the right edge where the priest is blessing a kneeling man. The lower joint has some old retouched flakes and a few nearby cracks, tapering off into the barrel in the centre and within the figure of Lent as well as coming in from the right, with rather more old damage near the base edge mainly in the lower right corner and at the mid right base edge, where old fillings are slightly unstable. The outer right corner at the top edge also has some patches of retouching, extending in a narrow line through the trees against the sky, with other smaller retouchings scattered up the right edge. However this is largely peripheral and the overall condition of this panel is exceptionally good. The rich unworn state of the paint almost throughout is rare, even for Pieter Bruegel the Younger, an extraordinary technician. The fine even craquelure is unchipped and intact, the delicate detail, translucent colour and minute impasto in the brushwork is perfectly preserved, with glimpses of drawing showing through in the most transparent areas of the background for example, which is often thin but is here intact. This report was not done under laboratory conditions. "This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."


117 by 165 cm.; 46 by 65 in.


Magazine of Art, October 1946; H. Swarzenski, "The Battle between Carnival and Lent", in Boston Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin, February 1951, p. 9; Advertisement in Apollo, October 1970; K. Demus et al., Flämische Malerei von Jan van Eyck bis Pieter Bruegel d. Ä. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 1981, p. 67; Trends, 15 June 1989, p. 173, reproduced; K. Ertz et al., Breughel-Brueghel, Pieter Brueghel d. J. - Jan Brueghel d. Ä.: flämische Malerei un 1600, Tradition und Fortschritt, exhibition catalogue, Essen, Villa Hügel, 16 August - 16 November 1997; Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 7 December 1997 - 14 April 1998; Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, 2 May - 26 May 1998, p. 337, reproduced fig. 2; K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Lingen 1988/2000, vol. I, pp. 221, 245, 253-4, 401, cat. no. E.185, reproduced fig. 180.


J. Mortimer, Aberdeen, 1856; Robert Gowie, Brooklyn, 1867; Amelia R. Lane; Edna F. and Irving P. Lane, Brooklyn Heights, New York; With Mortimer Brandt, New York, 1943; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1946; By whom sold, New York, Parke Bernet, 22 October 1970, lot 31; Acquired at the above sale or shortly afterwards for an American private collection; From whence anonymously sold, New York, Christie's, 31 May 1989, lot 88, where acquired by the present owner for $2,700,000.


Property from a Private Collection


Brussels 1564 - 1637/8 Antwerp

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.


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