BRUEGEL, Pieter the Elder
(b. ca. 1525, Brogel, d. 1569, Brussel)

The Fight between Carnival and Lent

Oil on panel, 118 x 165 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

With The Netherlandish Proverbs, also painted in 1559, this is the first in a series of allegories of human wickedness and foolishness which are based on the work of Hieronymus Bosch. The high viewpoint and the mass of small figures show strong compositional similarities to Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, for example.

This painting takes as its subject the traditional annual carnival which was held in Flemish towns and villages in the week before Lent. A half-religious, half-secular festival, it provided an excuse for excesses of drinking and sex. Bruegel stresses the opposition between the traditional enemies, Carnival and Lent, by representing their conflict as a joust. The two adversaries - the obese Carnival, seated astride a barrel and with a spit for a tilting lance, and the thin pinched figure of Lent, seated in a cart and using a baker's shovel as her weapon - come to blows in the square of a small Flemish town. The fat Lord of the Carnival astride the barrel is intended to represent the Protestants, the melancholy, lean figure with a beehive on his head, the Catholics. Bruegel is caricaturing both equally harshly.

The immediate source for Bruegel's choice of the subject was an engraving by his own publisher, Hieronymus Cock, of a design by Frans Hogenberg, which had been published in the previous year, 1558.

Certain motifs frequently recur in Bruegel's work. The group of cripples and beggars on Carnival's side of the square, ignored by the revellers, can be seen again (with some variations) in The Cripples of 1568, one of the artist's last paintings.