BRUEGHEL, Pieter the Younger
(b. 1564, Bruxelles, d. 1638, Antwerp)
Battle of Carnival and Lent-
Oil on wood, 121,3 x 171,5 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
If Pieter Bruegel the Elder enjoyed a solid reputation during his lifetime, his paintings were "even more sought after following his death" (in 1569), as Provost Morillon wrote to Cardinal de Granvelle as early as 1572. It is probably this constant demand which led the famous painter's oldest son, registered as a master in the Antwerp guild in 1584/85, to specialise in copying his father's works. The Battle of Carnival and Lent, the original of which is conserved in Vienna, is a very fine example of this. The subject matter can be found in medieval literature and plays.
In the foreground, two opposing processions, the one to the left led by the replete figure of Carnival and the one to the right by the haggard figure of Lent, are about to confront each other in a burlesque parody of a joust. Here, on either side of the picture, are feasting and fasting, winter and spring (the trees to the left are leafless, those to the right have leaves), popular jollity and well-ordered charity, the ill-famed tavern and the church as the refuge of the pious soul. Whilst the father's work was not lacking in humour, the son's emphasises the encyclopaedic aspect: the many scenes accompanying the "battle" are all ceremonies or customs attached to the rites of carnival and lent, which succeed each other from Epiphany until Easter. One intriguing element for which no satisfactory explanation has yet been found is the fool guiding a couple with a torch in broad daylight in the centre of the composition. The group is walking towards the right, but with its back turned both to Carnival and the viewer.
The smooth pictorial handling, the richness of the chromatic range and the subtlety of the colours, as well as the extreme care given to each detail make Brueghel the Younger's painting much more than a simple copy. In addition to its own qualities, the painting also acts as a precious witness to the original state of its model: the children lying at the entrance to the church, the old woman bent double in the cart drawn by a poor woman in rags, and the bloated body of the corpse in the right foreground have all been painted over out of prudishness at a later date on the Vienna panel. The cripple standing with a naked torso on the far right of the son's copy is also absent in the original.