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.)

Last week, I spent some time thinking more about Michelangelo’s image of the Flood on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. This week, I’m considering the other two scenes from the life of Noah: the Sacrifice of Noah and the Drunkenness of Noah.

Picking up the story where we left off: The rain stops and the floodwaters slowly recede. Eventually, the ark finds some dry land and everybody can get out. The first thing that Noah does is build an altar and offer a sacrifice to God in thanksgiving for saving them. So far, so good. But then, Noah makes some wine with the grapes he harvests from the new vines and drinks a little too much. He passes out naked. His youngest son, Ham, discovers him and tell his brothers, who cover him up while shielding their own eyes. When Noah wakes up and finds out what happened, he curses Ham, presumably because he gossiped about his father’s state rather than concealing it. The other two sons are blessed for their discretion. There you have it.

Michelangelo, Sacrifice of Noah, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

In Michelangelo’s depiction of it, the sacrifice is a family affair. While Noah, his wife, and daughter-in-law tend the fire on top of the altar and two sons work on the fire beneath (one is bringing a huge log), three others prepare the first offering of two rams.

As I’ve noticed so often in the ceiling frescoes, Michelangelo uses bodies and gestures to add considerable dynamism to the composition. Here, figures bend, crouch, twist, reach, pull, lean. The most important gesture is Noah’s, of course. He points up in reinforce the message that God was the one who saved them.

Again, so far, so good. But Noah isn’t perfect.

Michelangelo, Drunkenness of Noah, 1508-1512
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

The next panel has two parts. In the background on the left, we see a glimpse of Noah tilling the soil, presumably about to plant those first vines. The foreground, then, shows a passed-out Noah being covered by his sons. I find it curious that none of them are actually looking at their naked father (Ham only points here), when we as the viewers are encouraged to take a nice long look. We are implicated. We are the ones who are doing the disgraceful thing. We ought to feel a bit guilty, but do we? Me? Not so much.

What I find to be particularly compelling about this panel is, in fact, Noah’s body. It so clearly echoes the position of Adam’s body in the scene of his creation found toward the middle of the ceiling. Why did Michelangelo paint these two men so similarly?

With Adam, I think the posture communicates both the dignity and passivity of humanity (see my post on that), so it seems like we are being reminded of that here. And it makes sense because Noah is a new Adam, of sorts. God is starting over with Noah. But just like with the first one, this patriarch may be noble (God did call him righteous) but he is also weak (get some self-control, Noah). Michelangelo communicates this tension by idealizing his aging body and then making it slump over.

So, this is pessimistic way to end the narrative. It’s as if Michelangelo is pointing out that the Flood didn’t really accomplish much. Humanity is fallen, and wiping out the worst ones of the bunch is not going to change that essential fact.

Still, there is optimism here. Michelangelo, ever the product of Renaissance humanism, does paint a beautiful body, and thus suggests that God’s creation is fundamentally good (there was a belief in the correspondence between physical appearance and moral rectitude). Furthermore, two of the sons do the right thing and here even Ham diverts his eyes, as if to indicate that noble acts are still possible.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to pull from this in terms of my own life. I think it may be enough to have some new theological insights about the narrative. Human beings are a mess of contradictions. I guess I’m just glad God hasn’t chosen to wipe us out again. His mercy prevails.

Michelangelo, The Fall of Man and Expulsion from Eden, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, just slightly past the midway point, is this two-part scene. On the left is Michelangelo’s depiction of the Fall of Humanity and on the right the Expulsion from Eden. Here we have a tight narrative in which Adam and Eve’s actions on the left lead inexorably to the event on the right. No turning back.

The story is found in the book of Genesis, right after the story(s) of Creation. God has told Adam and Eve that they can eat anything in the Garden of Eden, except for the fruit of one tree. For a while it seems like they are fine with that, until the Serpent comes along and convinces Eve that she should eat it and then she turns around and convinces Adam he should too. Bad idea. They immediately feel guilty and try to avoid God when he comes looking for them. When God eventually confronts them, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the Serpent, but all three get punished. Among other things, Adam and Eve get kicked out of paradise. And, because of their disobedience, now every human being is prone to disobeying God—that’s the “Fall of Humanity.

Michelangelo puts his own little spin on the text, which has some theological implications. Notice how both Adam and Eve reach for the fruit. Eve has to twist around and reach behind her to take fruit from the Serpent (yes, the Serpent has a female torso … don’t get me started). The awkwardness of her gesture is heightened by the dead tree branch that follows the same line. For his part, Adam grips the tree and seems to pull it towards himself in order to get what he’s after. In this way, Michelangelo underscores how both are complicit in the Fall, but he seems to suggest that while Eve was passively receptive to the Serpent’s manipulation, Adam’s disobedience was assertive and willful. He’s going to take what God has forbidden.

Of course, the story doesn’t stop there. Our eye moves to the other side of the painting by following all those parallel and arching arms over to the angel at the top and then further to the pained faces of Adam and Eve. My, how things have changed.

The two look so young and innocent on the left, now they look old and gruesome. Sin has clearly taken its toll. Michelangelo has depicted the new state of their souls—that is, guilt-ridden and depraved—in their physical bodies. Their faces are weathered and wrinkled, their hair has become disheveled and stringy, and Eve covers her naked torso as she cowers and turns away. Adam also turns away, but it looks like he is trying to straight-arm the angel who is driving them out of Eden. If his posture is feebly defensive, the angel’s is forceful and aggressive, as if Michelangelo wants the angel to embody the anger of God.

I am struck by how incisively Michelangelo conveys the effects of sin here. First, he shows how sin has made us into despicable creatures. We are no longer the humans that God originally created us to be, for sin has eroded the innocence and dignity that characterized humanity before the Fall. At the same time, Michelangelo also portrays the shame and deep regret we sometimes feel when we become deeply aware of our sin and its consequences. I personally relate to Eve. I, too, have wanted to curl up in a little ball and hide because I have screwed up. Agh, what have I done!?!?

There’s not really any good news in this panel. Adam and Eve are left in this regrettable state. God is no where to be seen. There is no hint of any plan that God might have to reconcile with these two, or with humanity in general. Michelangelo leaves us with a pit in our stomach. While I would like a glimpse of hope, perhaps it’s better this way. It makes us live with this stark reality for a while.

Then, we start looking around for a sign of God’s grace. Don’t worry, it’s there.

Julian Grater, Study for Self-Image II, 1987 (

The season of Lent is forty days—a significant number. The flood lasted forty days and forty nights. The Israelites wondered in the wilderness for forty years. And Jesus spent forty days in the desert where he was tempted by Satan. It’s no coincidence that Lent is a season of darkness, trial, and temptation.

This painting is Julian Grater’s Study for Self-Image II, but many people know this image from the cover of Peter Gabriel’s score for Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ based on the book by Nikos Kazantzakis. The movie was very, very controversial, in large part because it suggests that Jesus fell much deeper into temptation than we usually want to consider. Being tempted to display his power is one thing, being tempted to have sex with Mary Magdalene is something else entirely.

But here’s what I appreciate about the book and, I guess, the movie. It takes seriously Christianity’s claim that Jesus was fully human. If Jesus was fully human wouldn’t he have sexual drives like any man? Wouldn’t he be tempted to chuck it all and live a “normal” life—take a wife, have kids, live to a ripe old age? To contemplate the depths of his temptation makes his choices all the more significant.

I think this image is so compelling because it reflects the way deep temptation feels, especially when you know you’re being tempted. It’s a darkness that swirls around you and fills your head—it muddles your thoughts, it clouds your vision, it sucks you in. But there is a burning desire at the center of all that, like the red spot that seems to glow deep within the dense nest of black paint. The possibility of pleasure dances over the surface of your body and the edges of your mind, like those little spindly flowers that follow the contour of the shoulder and brighten the dark areas of the painting. We’ve been there, haven’t we?

On the cover of the album, the image is supposed to be that of Christ. This is the story about his temptation. But Grater has titled it Self-Image, so this is really a depiction of his own experience of temptation. And that’s the point. That’s the wonder of it.

If we claim that Christ understands the temptations we face, then we have to be open to the possibility that he really did experience those temptations. He, too, had to feel the darkness, the confusion, the desire, the burden.

He somehow—and I really mean that—somehow managed to pull out of every dark and deep temptation he faced. I may not understand it, but I’m immensely thankful that he did. Now, by the grace of God, may I find my way out as well.

Abraham van Beyeren, Banquet Still Life, c. 1653-55 (Seattle Art Museum)

Thanksgiving makes me think of the amazing Dutch still lifes of the 17th century for all the obvious reasons. Rarely do we have tables that are literally overflowing with such rich and magnificent food.

Take this one by van Beyeren. It has succulent fruits—peaches, oranges, grapes, lemon, and even a pomegranate that has been broken open to reveal its gem-like seeds. Then there are oysters and shrimp and what I think is another kind of seafood in the porcelain bowl in the center. On the left, is a roasted fowl—duck, goose, turkey?—and a loaf of crusty bread that someone has already torn into (it would have been me). And, no meal would be complete without the wine. The table linens and serving dishes are all the finest. This is a special feast.

Back in the day, paintings like this were a way for the painter to show of his skill. In one single painting, he had to paint a whole range of textures and materials—from the dusty skin of freshly picked grapes and fuzzy skin of peaches to the greasy surface of the roasted meat and gooey-ness of the oyster. But the painting would also serve to suggest the wealth of the family who had it hanging in their home—as if to say that these delicacies are often found on their table.

But these people were good Calvinists, so such ostentatious shows of skill and wealth were a wee bit problematic. In the minds of these Protestants, one should be careful not to trust in the things of the world for they will soon pass away. So, the paintings were laced with subtle hints that this abundance is fleeting—the lemon is peeled, the bread broken, the peach cut, the oysters shelled. Now exposed to the air, these tasty morsels will soon dry out and begin to rot. If that weren’t enough, the ornate nautilus cup has been overturned, hinting that its precious contents could be lost quick as a wink. Finally, to drive the point home, van Beyeren has placed a watch with an eye-catching blue satin ribbon front and center to remind the viewer that the passing of time is the only constant here. Everything else will die, decay, and disintegrate—even the viewer herself—but time will always be.

It’s not exactly a happy thought as we approach Thanksgiving, but I think that is what Thanksgiving is all about. When we thank God for the many blessings in our lives, our thankfulness can be all the more profound if we acknowledge how fragile and ephemeral these blessings actually are. And, perhaps, we may be encouraged to reflect on the blessings that are as constant as time itself.

That’s a lot of meat

November 11, 2011

Pieter Aertsen, Butcher's Stall, 1551 (Uppsala University, Sweden)

This week, I’m taking a closer look at Aertsen’s Meat Stall from 1551. In its day, it was wildly innovative in terms of subject (raw meat) and composition (just wait).

Meat, meat, meat. Aertsen took great pains to paint each bit of flesh with realistic precision. As one art historian has noted, some of the pieces seem so fresh they might still be warm. It’s a profusion of meat displayed for the visual delectation of the viewer. Your mouth should be watering. (If it’s not, blame 21st century squeamishness.)

The foreground might be full of meat, but that’s just the beginning of the painting. Through the various windows and doors of the stall, we see other scenes. On the right, the eye winds its way through an alley strewn with oyster shells where a man fills a jug from a well, to a back tavern in which two couples seem to be indulging their appetites.

 

 

On the left side, we look out onto the road to see a procession of worshipers on their way to a church. Anachronistically, Joseph and Mary with an infant Jesus are also there. They are fleeing to Egypt, but they have stopped to give a bit of bread to a poor young boy. Theirs is an act of extreme charity—they have so little, yet they give what they can.

 

The moral of this painting is easy, right? In the face of temptation, there are two ways to go: give in to your carnal desires or resist the temptation and pursue virtues like charity. Got it.

But I think Aertsen has done something far more interesting than a simple morality picture here. He pushes all the meat so far forward in the painting that it reaches into our own space. In effect, he dangles all this deliciousness before our eyes, so our attention keeps coming back to it. We may glance at the scenes beyond, but they are so small and so sketchy, that they hold much less visual interest for us. Isn’t that just how temptations work? We might know where we ought to look or where we ought to pour our time and energy, but the things that tempt us always loom large, they are always more enticing.

The challenge, then, is to fight the urge. But the metaphor here is not repentance, or turning away from temptation, it is looking past that which tempts us. We have to look beyond the mesmerizing foreground of this painting and peer deeper into the image to see truth and be edified. I like the way Aertsen changes the metaphor for us because it calls attention to just how powerful and seductive temptations are. It may be nice to think about simply turning away so you don’t have to look at the thing which tempts you, but how often does the temptation actually leave your sight, or mind, or body? This painting suggests we need to look past those things that look so good, even as they dangle in front of our eyes, in order to pursue what is good, noble, and worthy. Sounds easy, but Aertsen’s painting demonstrates just how hard that is.