As the days roll by, the Carnival vibes seem ever closer and alongside this, so does the kaleidoscopic reality it presents. Pieter Bruegel takes this celebration as a starting point for the chaotic scene depicted in ‘The Fight between Carnival and Lent’, and evokes a contrast between the former and latter stipulated periods. Although both recognised times in the religious calendar, the way they are portrayed is representative of a greater reality comparable to the way each and every one of us leads our life.
Originally, Carnival knew a darker side and its name could owe its origin to ‘carne levare’ literally meaning to put away meat due to the subsequent period of Lent. It could however also be argued that during this period ‘carne vale’ and hence consumption is allowed. ‘Carrus navalis’, a cart used in Ancient Rome during the festival of Saturnalia is also a plausible origin of the name ‘Carnival’.
Similarly to Carnival, the aforementioned ancient festivity also involves costumes and concealment of identity. Whether we are aware of it or not, we often put on a figurative mask. However, ‘when Jesus was sad, he cried. He didn’t wear the masks of being a tough guy who doesn’t cry’ (John 11:35), and ‘when Jesus was happy, he laughed and smiled. He went to parties, and was not afraid to have a good time’ (John 2:1-11). Thus, we question why we subject ourselves to external pressure and disguise our true selves. This may stem from fear of exposure and possible rejection of others. On the other hand, we also often fall into the temptation of judging at face value and failing to see what lies beneath an often obscure mask.
King Carnival is here manifest on a large barrel of beer carrying a lance with various meats and wearing a pie as a cap. This initially humorous visual representation evokes a sense of momentary pleasures which in a materialistic society reign supreme. Albeit these, chaos is evident. Creating a contrasting parallelism, the nun representing Lady Lent also holds a lance and bares a cap on head. However, simplicity is evident in a wooden paddle and fish as opposed to the head of pig, and a beehive as a hat, symbolic of the Church. The order present on the right-hand side of the painting allows time for subconscious analysis.
The two sides are reminiscent of the totality of the human experience and the painting doesn’t seek to portray any side as inferior. They are rather, the two extremes which one can experience in life. The materialistic aspect manifest in the Carnivalesque aspect may appear more attractive at first glance, however overindulgence is likely to make one sick and unhealthy.
A couple following a fool in the middle of the scene could likely represent balance between the two aforementioned extremities. We thus note a certain element of interdependence between that which is earthly, and the order present in religion during our lives. The man and woman can be interpreted as role models, yet they too are susceptible to the temptation of straying away from morals and following the fool who seems to be pulling them in the gluttonous and consumerist direction. Reminiscent of Matthew 7: 14, the narrow path they trod along represents the struggle to divert to the natural human tendency when obstacles emerge along the way.
As a lady cleans the window panes, we note the changes that take place in Lent. Rather than giving up when faced with struggles, we are called to stop for a period of self-examination that is evident in the woman looking at her reflection in the well. Could this be a Biblical allegory of Jesus seeking the sinner as he did with the adulterous woman at the well? This is also symbolic of Baptism and renewal in one’s belief. Bruegel’s work thus urges one to remove the masks we wear in face of our faith and rather than fear judgement based on our past, to use this as a springboard for that which is yet to come. At the end of the day, the Church is a place where sinners are called to receive mercy.
Image: The British Library
Corinne Sammut Micallef Grimaud