Lent … A Battle Scene

February 23, 2015

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Battle between Carnival and Lent, c. 1559 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Battle between Carnival and Lent, c. 1559 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

This week we marked the passage into the holy season of Lent. I used to make much of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, but I haven’t had ashes on my forehead for years now. It’s complicated. Which is why this painting came to mind.

This is a typical Brueghel painting in that it is crammed full of stuff. Your eye wonders around a bit until you finally hone in on the action at the bottom center. Two characters are riding make-shift contraptions toward each other, both carrying “lances” as if they are about to joust. The one on the left (riding a beer barrel) symbolizes Carnival—the season that runs up to the beginning of Lent and is characterized by indulgence, especially in the areas of food and drink. The character on the right (being pulled on a cart) symbolizes Lent—the period leading up to Easter during which Christians practice abstinence as a way to remember Christ’s sacrifice and prepare for the holiest of Holy-Days.

Brueghel

The two figures personify the two seasons in many ways. One is well-fed; the other is lean. One fights with skewer full of meat, the other with board of fish. For helmets, one has a meat pie, the other a bee hive. One is followed by a table of bread and waffles (the starch of Carnival), while the other brings pretzels and biscuits (the starch of Lent). The contrast extends beyond the two figures. The people on the left crowd into taverns, parade around in masks, and imbibe; the people on the right, many having crosses imposed on their foreheads, prepare themselves for Lent, including giving alms to the poor and disabled.

Scholars have offered varying interpretations of this painting. For some it’s a straightforward picture of the perennial triumph of Lent. Others point to the historical context and suggest that the painting is an allegory for the religious tensions between Catholics (for whom Lent was a deeply held tradition) and Protestants (who had abolished Lent, but still observed Carnival). Still other scholars point to the ridiculousness of both sides of the battle and argue that Brueghel is commenting about just how superficial all these religious practices have become—it’s all a show.

Looking at it today, and from a personal perspective, I wonder if this reflects a conflict that many of us feel. We know we should be engaged in the practices long associated with Lent—abstinence, generosity, penitence, contemplation. Those are all very good and worthy things. But it’s complicated.

It’s convenient to suggest that Brueghel may be commenting about the superficiality of all religious practices. It lets us off the hook—just like when we (okay, I) dismiss another’s practice just because he announces that he can’t have the chocolate cake because he gave sweets up for Lent. Such displays of piety have a tendency to make me want to steer clear of acts of piety altogether. Thus, to arrive at this kind of interpretation of the painting makes me suspicious. Interpretations can reveal a lot about the interpreter, after all.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to run out to find a pastor who will put ashes on my forehead ex post facto, but I am going to commit to thinking differently about these Lenten traditions that (frankly) have seemed at times to be more show than soul-shaping. My motives will never be pure and a little alms-giving, and a little abstinence will likely do my spirit good.

(And now I’m wondering if this whole blog entry is a show of piety. Ha. Of course it is.)

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