Do you know the (cult) book series “Where’s Wally”? They contain illustrations in the form of “searches”. The title character is hiding among the crowd of characters and our skilled eye is supposed to recognize him. However, before we succeed, we have to get through the multitude of distracting elements. You probably wouldn’t guess that this kind of game comes from (among other things) the paintings of Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He has developed a formula for a painting called Wimmelbild (literally: a vibrant painting). They were based on the same rule as “searches” and served the same purpose – intellectual riddle.
One of these vibrant works is “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” from the Vienna Museum of Art History. The events accompanying the transition between the last days of the carnival and the beginning of Lent are shown here in an encyclopedic perspective. I would like to invite you to take a walk with me among the numerous scenes painted by Bruegel. Initially, they seem like total chaos, but when we consider each of them individually, they begin to form an extraordinary story.
The foreground is filled with the title fight between the personifications of Lent and Carnival. The latter is shown in the form of a fat man sitting on a barrel and focused on balancing on his head the blackbird pie. Instead of a lance, indispensable in a knight’s tournament, he has a spit with all kinds of meat stuffed on it. This refers to the etymology of the word carnivale, which can be translated as “devouring of meat”. There are picturesque figures in his procession, some of them wear carnival masks, all of them take part in festivities and enjoy the music. On the from there is a young man who, like a second in a duel, raises the flag in carnival colors.
From the opposite side arrives Ms. Lent, who sits on a platform pulled by a monk and a nun. All participants of her pageant have an ash cross drawn on their forehead. She has a hive on her head like a mitre, instead of a lance she is holding a bakery shovel with two fish on it. Honey, fish, as well as mussels (visible in the basket) and bread are fasting dishes. Take a good look at the flat loaves of bread – a piece is missing in each of them. It is customary to give 1/10 of each baked bread to the poor during fasting. And notice the scattered pretzels – they resemble hands folded for prayer.
Such a duel belonged to the tradition of celebrating the end of the carnival in the Netherlands. A few days before Ash Wednesday various events were taking place, which can be seen on the left side of the composition. In front of the inn there is a play being staged – “The Dirty Bride” based on motives from Virgil’s bucolics. Its construction is based on the principle of the inverted order of the world, a principle that also rules during the carnival. A bit in the background there is another performance – “Urso & Valentine”. Both were traditionally staged on Sunday before Ash Wednesday, when the carnival ends. The artist has also introduced a reference to his contemporary Antwerp. Look for a sign with a blue boat. In the city of Bruegel, the Blue Boat Tavern was a gathering place for the fraternity of jesters and carnival.
Carnival games take various forms: dancing in a circle, playing dice or breaking pots. Everyone is busy drinking and enjoying themselves, so that no one notices a group of beggars unsuccessfully trying to attract the attention of passers-by.
The situation on the opposite side of the square, where fasting has already taken place, is different. The building of the church dominates there, from where crowds of people come out. They have a fixed expression on their faces, they are deeply thoughtful. The only form of fun allowed here is a play with little bitch put in motion by smacking it with a whip. Thanks to the latter, the innocent child’s play turns into a reminder of the necessity of mortification.
On this side of the square, the beggars line up to receive alms from the believers leaving after the service. But not everyone is honest. A begging woman with pilgrim’s badges on her hat – guaranteeing her all the help she needs for the duration of her pilgrimage – hides a monkey in her basket. This animal is a symbol of deceitfulness, so one should doubt the sincerity of the declaration of its carer.
Wandering around this whole composition, I go back to the pair of wanderers shown more or less in the center of the picture. They seem, like us, to absorb the richness of experience that surrounds them. Apparently, they let themselves be led by a jester who is heading right into the middle of a carnival joys, but their steps are directed in the opposite direction, towards the less attractive side with sacrifices.
Above the square, on the windowsill of the yellow house, there is a puppet dressed as a man. It seems to observe all events placed on the border of both zones. According to the custom popular in the Netherlands, such a doll imitating a human figure was burnt on the evening before Ash Wednesday, which gave beginning to Lent. The puppet was supposed to take away all the bad deeds committed in the previous year, along with the carnival excesses, to allow everyone to freely enter the cleansing period of fasting.
Bruegel in a small area showed a wealth of customs related to the period of transition between giving vent to desires and times of fasting sacrifices. However, the duel that he has put in the foreground is a fake, there will be no clash. Both sides are essential to mutual existence, one cannot exist without the other.