Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Battle between Carnival and Lent—it’s on!

We are now fully launched into the season of Carnival. The word "Carnival" means--somewhat surprisingly, perhaps--"the putting away of flesh"; so this is the great mad party before the flesh is put away. Carnival will rise to its climax on February 16—Mardi Gras, meaning "Fat Tuesday"; in English, it's Shrove Tuesday. Carnival will then give way to Lent, with its many austerities; the flesh is indeed to be put away for a time.

In the past, this season was sometimes thought of as a great struggle between the pleasures of the flesh—out of control, and gone somewhat berserk—and Lenten mortification and self-denial. In his famous--and darkly comic--painting titled "The Battle between Carnival and Lent," the great 16th century Flemish painter Peter Brueghel showed the dramatic conflict between the two seasons—the two spirits: love of the flesh vs. self-mortification and charity. Some people are drinking beer, eating waffles, dancing and kissing, many of them masked or wearing party hats--now, that’s Carnival! Others (on the right) are coming out of church, giving charity to beggars, and doing other works of mercy: that’s Lent.

Down toward the bottom, you can see Carnival--shown as a hugely fat man riding a big beer barrel, with a pig’s head on his lance--getting ready to joust with Lent, represented as a skinny old woman dressed in gray mourning, sitting in an uncomfortable prayer chair; her lance is a flat baker’s paddle with two herring lying on it. See the pretzels sitting on her cart? Pretzels--thin ropes of bread in the form of praying arms--were Lenten food.

Here are Carnival and Lent in more detail.

She may not look very tough, but Lent is about to win--for a season!

1 comment:

  1. Brueghel is special, his paintings are haunting - like this one. Thought-provoking, unsettling.

    A tangential thought: Some historians simplify and say the difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is like the difference between fasting (Lent) and carnival. But they loose perspective of the *processes* - in history, in nature, in human lives.
    The painting and your comments pose many questions for us: What is our attitude towards the "confrontation" of carnival (feasting) and Lent (fasting)? Which type of "fasting" suits me - or you?