From the very early days of Christianity, Christians prepared for Easter by fasting and sacrifice, prayer and penance. Over time this became known as Lent and developed into a 40 day fast which would begin on Ash Wednesday and end on Holy Thursday or on Easter Sunday depending on the tradition or rite being observed. Christians would fast from meat, rich foods, and dairy. Because of this other customs began to form, one of which was called carnival.
Carnival comes from the Latin carne lavere and means “removal of meat”, or from carne vale, which would be “goodbye to meat“. These Pre-Lenten celebrations to use up meat and foods that would over time become known by other names such as Mardi Gras (America), Fastelavn (Denmark/Norway) and Vastenavond (Netherlands).
The Battle of Carnival and Lent, by Pieter Bruegner is a wonderful piece of Renaissance art. Made in 1559 it’s setting is in the Carnival/Lent of the Netherlands. It’s very much like a “Where’s Waldo” from 500 years ago. In the picture you can see the contrast between the two seasons from the left to the right. The left part of the picture shows the Carnival and the right Lent, and shows such things as the parade, fatness, wine, and gambling of carnival, opposed to almsgiving, confession, and abstinence and piety of Lent.
The confrontation between these extremes takes place in the bottom center. Here we see lances of meat and fish, a wine barrel for a horse and a chariot drawn by a monk and nun. The knight for Carnival is fat and the knight for Lent is gaunt.
While the subject deals with these two conflicting seasons, it seems like there are many other things it could relate to such as the conflict between the world and religion, paganism and christianity, the rich and the poor. Given a dozen people, they may all come away with a different take.
The mystery in all this is the couple in the center of the picture. The area surrounding them is illumined, drawing our attention there and forcing the viewer to take notice. They are walking it seems to the church, and we cannot see their faces. Are they moving from Carnival to Lent or simply walking a fine line between these opposing forces? Their path seems to be blocked by a jester who is walking the opposite direction, maybe trying leave or avoid Lent. I like to think they represent the viewer in some way. Allowing us to take form in the midst of the scene to ask ourselves what it is we are doing and where we are going in the midst of all this.
Another thing that comes to my mind would be this: What if Brueghel were alive today and was doing a re-make? Would Lent be over-run by Carnival in the Me Generation?