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Shrove Tuesday: Between Carnival and Lent

Tuesday, 9 February, 2016

Strijd tussen Carnaval en Vasten (The Fight Between Carnival and Lent) was the title Pieter Bruegel the Elder gave to this painting, which dates from 1559. Today, Shrove Tuesday, the day when we transition from indulging our appetites to curbing them for 40 days and 40 nights, is a good time to ponder its depiction of feasting and fasting, winter and spring, burlesque and piety, the inn and the church.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

“The artist lived at a time of great religious upheaval, when the Protestant Reformation was in full swing, and when many of the old customs were coming under threat. The Catholic attachment to Lenten rites of observance was heavily criticised by the Protestant reformers, while the spirit of Carnival was being crushed by those in authority on both sides of the religious divide. Catholic authorities became suspicious of Carnival because its parodies of church ritual seemed suddenly more pointed and subversive after the assaults of Luther and Calvin; while Protestant church leaders, for their part, disliked its spirit of excess and indulgence, distrusted its theatricality, and abominated its pagan origins. Bruegel’s view of the customs that he so vividly recreated is hard to establish, although there is a clue perhaps in the elevated perspective from which he has chosen to look down on the scene. I suspect his attitude to popular faith and festivity may have been one of amused but affectionate detachment — touched, too, by nostalgia for a world that was disappearing even as he painted it.” — Andrew Graham-Dixon


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