“The Battle Between Carnival and Lent” is one of Brueghel’s best portrayals of the most pervasive contrasts of his world. This threeday festival of frantic eating, drinking and carousing that preceded the forty days of Lent was one of a number of popular celebrations coopted by the Church and made official as part of the preLenten ritual. Carnival was a time of institutionalized disorder, “the world upside down,” a reversal of roles, a game. It offered the opportunity for a rich display of man at his most outrageous extremes of behavior. The fact that the church had to allow carnival or this popular feast in order to enforce Lent was a source of tension between the Church officials and the people.
Brueghel’s painting portrays swarming activities in which beggars mix with partgoers costumed as kings and rioters dance briskly amid cripples who can barely get about on crutches and callused nubs of what used to be knees. This work captures the feeling of the precarious balance between life and death. This panoramic bird’seye view is centered on a mock battle—a traditional part of the festivities—in which the piety of Lent was comically pitted against the revelry of carnival. At the center, a brightly dressed, grossly fat man representing carnival’s excesses is mounted on a huge beer barrel, ready to joust with Lent, a skinny creature dressed in mourning and seated on an uncomfortable prayer stool. Carnival holds a cooking spit garnished with rich holiday food, while Lent weakly holds out a baker’s paddle holding two herring. Behind the Carnival to the left and down the side streets, students will identify masked partygoers eating waffles, drinking beer and dancing merrily. In front of the Inn of the Blue Boat, comedians act out a farce called “The Ugly Bride” while a couple kisses in the window.
In contrast with the brawling left side of the picture, where begging cripples are completely ignored, the right side (lighter side) is filled with activities showing piety and charity. Darkrobed worshippers walk from the church, a fishwife does a thriving trade and wealthy burghers give charity.
“Carnival in the Piazza Colonna, Rome” by Jan Miel is another painting which evokes the tension of carnival. In this painting, the statue of St. Paul atop a Greek column is surrounded by Roman nobility wearing lavish costumes and mounted on horseback. The common people are presented as the merrymakers: panhandlers, urchins and hawkers. Also pictured is the Commedia dell’Arte, a professional society which performed comedy.
In the painting, actors are masqueraded as figures from all strata of society. It is Shrove Tuesday, the last day of the carnival. Merrymaking has reached its peak as winter hangs in effity.