Carnival and Lent

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Peter Bruegel 1559

Bruegel’s picture caught my eye today, as this week marks the start of Lent in both the Christian Orthodox and Catholic Church; Easter this year falls on the same day 16th April.  My friends in Greece have been enjoying Carnival season, or “apokries” in Greek.   The season is also called “triodion,” named after the liturgical book which is used by the Greek Orthodox Church during the masses from that point on and up to Easter’s Holy Week.

Triodion gives the chance to all Orthodox Christians to indulge for the last time in any sins they wish, before commencing with the fasting period. Therefore, during the three weeks of the Carnival, many restrictions written down by the Church are lifted.

The three weeks of carnival and celebrations end with the symbolic burning of an effigy of the Carnival King, to say goodbye to the preceding celebrations, is followed by Clean Monday and the Great Lent, a period of strict fasting and preparation for Easter’s Holy Week.

Here, we celebrated Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  The name Shrove comes from the old middle English word ‘Shriven’ meaning to go to confession.  Lent always starts on a Wednesday, so people went to confessions on the day before. This became known as Shriven Tuesday and then Shrove Tuesday.

The other name for this day, Pancake Day, comes from the old English custom of using up all the fattening ingredients in the house before Lent, so that people were ready to fast during Lent. The fattening ingredients that most people had in their houses in those days were eggs and milk. A very simple recipe to use up these ingredients was to combine them with some flour and make pancakes.

Bruegel’s painting presents the contrast between two sides of life, with the appearance of the inn on the left side – for enjoyment, and the church on the right side – for religious observance.

The painting is rich in allegories and symbolisms, a battle enacted between the figures Carnival and Lent.  It is often read as the triumph of Lent, since the figure of Carnival seems to bid farewell with his left hand and his eyes lifted to the sky.

The busy scene depicts well-behaved children near the church and a beer drinking scene near the inn. At the centre is a well, showing the coming together of different parts of the community, and other scenes show a fish stall and two competing floats.

It is split into two sections, the popular and the religious.  The scene is set in a town’s market square (a traditional setting for the Carnival), with the figure of Carnival impersonated by a fat man who led a procession through the town and presided over a large feast.

The man behind the barrel is dressed in yellow, which relates to deceit, he is followed by a woman.  In one hand, she is holding a tumbler and in the other a candle, again allegorical symbols for deceit. Beside her is a lute-player, which was a frequent symbol of Lutheranism.  The Lutherans had abolished Lent but still celebrated the Carnival.  A tavern filled with drinkers and onlookers watch the performance of a popular farce known as The Dirty Bride. At the street crossing a group of cripples have come out to beg, while behind them, led by a bagpiper, a procession of lepers walks past.

Lent’s half of the picture, is dominated by abstinence and piety, with people drawing water from the well, giving alms to the poor and the sick, and going to church. The church itself is the dominant building from which queues of black figures emerge from their prayers. Lady Lent in the foreground, garbed like a nun with her followers feeding on bread and biscuits. Lady Lent’s wagon contains traditional Lenten foods, pretzels, waffles, and mussels. Just inside the entrance to the church a veiled statue is visible – it was customary in Roman Catholic churches to cover up all works of art at Lent until Easter Sunday when the carved and painted figures of saints would be unveiled once more, “brought back to life like the Saviour himself.”

In Bruegel’s time, when the Protestant Reformation was surging, many of the old customs were under threat. The Roman Catholic attachment to Lenten rites was heavily criticised by the Protestant reformers and the spirit of carnival was viewed with suspicion on both sides of the religious divide.

The background is dominated by people working with food, preparing for Lenten and a married couple stand out in the middle with their backs turned to the viewer, guided by a fool with a burning torch.

Many critics say the married couple represent the masses, the man has a bulge under his clothes, suggestive of a hunchback associated with the allegorical figure of Egotism or man’s faults and weaknesses.  The woman’s main characteristic is the unlit lantern hanging by her belt. She is guided by a fool, and not by reason. The burning torch the latter carries is also symbolic of dispute and destruction.

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