(b. 1508, Amsterdam, d. 1575, Amsterdam)

Butcher's Stall

Oil on panel, 123 x 167 cm
Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala

In the 16th and 17th centuries it was quite common for theologians to see a slaughtered animal as symbolizing the death of a believer. Allusions to the 'weak flesh' (cf. Matthew 16:41) may well have been associated with Aertsen's Butcher's Stall where - like on his fruit and vegetable stalls - a seemingly infinite abundance of meat has been spread out.

In this picture, the viewer's senses are immediately assaulted by the profusion of life-size comestibles. Amid fowls, sausages, beef, pork, fish, butter, cheese and pretzel, the eye of a flayed ox's head disconcertingly seems to watch the viewer. Each object is a masterful still-life. Like Lucas van Leyden and some other Netherlandish artists, Aertsen inverted the traditional foreground-subject relationship; his narrative occurs in the background. Almost unnoticed at first, the stall permits glimpses of a tavern on the right and a landscape behind. The ground around the inn is covered with oyster and mussel shells, which in some context - as here - allude to their consumption as an aphrodisiac. Among the tavern's revellers is a prostitute with a possible customer.

Meanwhile, groups of people, dressed in contemporary Netherlandish attire, walk through the countryside towards the church visible at the far left. Only the mother riding the donkey stops to give alms to the poor. She is the Virgin Mary. Led by Joseph, she and her son are journeying to Egypt, to escape Herod. This is a very different presentation than the standard flight into Egypt since no idols fall, no miracles occur, no angels or servants direct the way. Although beset by their own troubles, the Holy Family shares what they have with the less fortunate. No halos signal their divinity, rather, Aertsen accented their humanity to construct a moral about daily personal decisions. His pilgrimage of life offers a choice between a materialistic and morally questionable existence on the one hand and the spiritual path of the Holy Family on the other.

Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer, his nephew and pupil, popularized peasant and market scenes such as this, which typically contain half-hidden moralizations and religious themes. Through their impetus in Antwerp and Amsterdam, where they painted, peasant and market scenes evolved into a separate artistic specialization around the mid-sixteenth century.