The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Kampf zwischen Fasching und Fasten (“The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”) depicts today, the day before Lent. Today is an important enough day in the Christian calendar to go by a few nicknames: Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” “Pancake Day.”

Any day that is associated with food, whether because restrictions are about to be imposed or restrictions are to be erased for one special day, by rights ought to have as many nicknames as it can bear.

Bruegel’s masterwork, which dates from 1559, is huge, almost four feet tall and about five and a half feet wide, befitting a busy street scene which is not merely a street scene but an entirely metaphorical street scene. Several dozen figures—my crowd-estimating eye puts it at more like 150—populate the painting. The painting is all busy detail, like many of Bruegel’s works. The street itself is not rendered as a flat surface but is given nuance: lighter where decades of pedestrians and carts have flattened the ground, darker where it is less used; a cobblestone gutter crosses the street between two buildings in the top left quarter.


The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel, 1559 (Kunsthistorisches Museum)

There is a lot of sad action near that gutter: drunks and beggars, handicapped alms-seekers needing help from those who can not give any: the inebriated revelers. A few figures to the left of dead center catch the eye; a couple individuals are on crutches, one possesses useless legs and is employing short hand-crutches and a wheeled platform. (Of course my eye goes there.) Both are yelling, begging for help that does not appear to be available. Each figure’s face, if shown, is the face of an individual, a person, and not a template or a cartoon representing “face.” For much of western art history, crowd scenes were depicted with one face repeated however many times it was needed, almost like a child’s rubber stamp. Not with Breugel. These faces are caricatures, cartoon-ish, but individual.

Mardi Gras is to the left, where an inn sits. Party-goers have poured out into the street and a parade is taking place, that Mardi Gras tradition that still remains in many parts of the world. A man rides a beer barrel. He is wearing a meat pie as a hat (four hundred fifty years before Lady Gaga), has knives on his belt (indicating that he is a butcher), and has a roasted pig on a spit for a mock jousting pole.

Just as we read from left to right in many languages, the passage of time is often represented from left to right and so we move from Mardi Gras at the left to Lent on the right. The church sits there. In his depiction of both major buildings, the inn to the left and the church on the right side, Bruegel includes figures and faces inside the structures. The revelers in the inn are poking their heads out in the street; the churchgoers stream into and out of the church entrance. Deep inside the church one finds hints of paint indicating one more cape indicating one more figure inside. Beside the church door, Bruegel has painted a paper sign indicating the hours of different services. He has weathered it and depicted it as tattered and repaired and repeatedly affixed to the stone surface; two addenda are glued beside it.

Just outside the church, alms are being given to a blind couple with begging bowls and a legless figure. The church is a part of the carnival, too: a parade float with “Lady Lent” bearing a jousting pole of a paddle with two fish on it. The figure is gaunt, the float’s followers carry bread and pretzels and pancakes.

No winner is intended to be seen, as it is all a part of the Mardi Gras show; even Lent is on a float, after all. But each figure has a role to play in Bruegel’s all-inclusive street scene. Each individual is shown reacting to or participating in an action, and each piece of clothing or everyday item is a part of the history and traditions of this day at this point in history in this part of the world. But there may be an editorial comment at dead center. One group seems unattached to any part of the scene. They are shown with their backs to us and the lighter color of the street isolates them. The couple carry symbols from the era identifying them as a married pair, and they are being led by a torch-bearing figure dressed as a Fool. He appears to be heading in the direction of the inn. Like a moviegoer yelling impotently at a horror movie, people who encountered Bruegel’s painting when it was new would have wanted to yell out and prevent the married couple from disaster.

Today is Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, “Pancake Day,” and tomorrow certain Christians will be reminded that from dust they came and “to dust you shall return.” Thus today is for partying and cooking what stocks remain for what remains of winter, which in some years (this one) can act more like a prison than other years.

* * * *
Please subscribe to The Gad About Town on Facebook:

The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 17 asks, “You’ve being exiled to a private island, and your captors will only supply you with five foods. What do you pick?”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 15 asks, “What do you display on the walls of your home—photos, posters, artwork, nothing? How do you choose what to display? What mood are you trying to create?”


  1. Martha Kennedy · February 17, 2015

    Have you seen “The Mill and the Cross”? If you like Bruegel you might love that film (I do…) Very enjoyable post, too. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. angloswiss · February 17, 2015

    Had to have a little chuckle on this one. I very much like Breugel. He is very down to earth, comes from the days when a burp after lunch was considered good manners and various other human noises. I live in Solothurn (the next village 20 minutes walk along the main road) in Switzerland which has probably the third biggest carnival happening, Basel being first and Luzuern being second. It started last week at 6.00 a.m. with lots of noise and will end on Wednesday evening with the burning of the Böög (a gigantic dummy stuffed with fireworks). All I can say is thank goodness. Breugal’s painting is very realistic and our streets are more or less paved with drunken louts during the evening and pasty white faces of people in the early morning hours. Some take the week off work, others try to pull it through. I remember my time as a Swiss office worker and the sights I saw of unwashed people trying to do their best without falling asleep at their desk. I can see the funny side of it, but there is also a sad side. I am not a carnival person, just a spectator, although I had to go through it when the kids were small. What mother doesn’t accompany the kids to the procession where confetti paves the streets and people blow trumpets in your face and of course you have to let the kids dress for the occasion. A cowboy hat and pistol and don’t forget the face painting. So that’s that. Just had to get rid of that. And no, I did not make pancakes today. We can buy so-called carival biscuits, flat, sweet and deepfried. Oh for the normal days again. Just to add I am actually an english refugee from the East End of London that just wanted to take a job in Switzerland 48 years ago and met Mr. Swiss 46 years ago. The rest is the history of a Mrs. Angloswiss.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. livingonchi · February 17, 2015

    Imprisoned is exactly how I feel right now! But as for your post, it was excellent. I had to download the picture and zoom it to see some of the scenes you described. I think I found everything but the cobblestone gutter. Still looking for that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mark Aldrich · February 17, 2015

      Walk your eye from the Fool at center to the left, to the guy on crutches, and then further left to the street corner where there are some more people crossing the street (they have their backs to us). Those people are walking along a very delicately painted cobblestone line, that I at least think is a gutter. It may be a crosswalk indicator.

      Liked by 2 people

      • livingonchi · February 17, 2015

        Oh yes, ok. I did see that line and was wondering whether that was it. Interesting comment you made about the married couple.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Swoosieque · February 17, 2015

    Reblogged this on Cancer Isn't Pink and commented:
    After reading Mark’s post regarding today, Fat Tuesday, I was so impressed with the intricacy of his observations that I have to re-blog it. I am sure you will find it interesting as well.


  5. Swoosieque · February 17, 2015

    I loved this Mark, so much, that I had to re-blog it. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  6. thereluctantbaptist · February 17, 2015

    Very interesting. And dang it, I forgot to buy a paczke.


  7. MelissaM · February 17, 2015

    I have spent a great deal of time in front of Bruegel’s The Wedding Dance at the Detroit Institute of Art. Wonderful observations.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Teresa Oh · February 18, 2015

    Another great piece of work here Mark. You made me appreciate art in a wider sense now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. bkmoore · February 18, 2015

    It has been a long time since I studied art. Thank you for this refresher course, it has drawn me back into the delight of art history.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. taohobo · February 19, 2015

    An amazing use of a prompt. I especially appreciate the observations and interpretation of this piece of art and its setting and time.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. litadoolan · March 11, 2015

    Thank you for the insights and tour of this painting. Enlightening.


  12. kellapitter · February 8, 2017

    Hey Mark, nice article. You might find mine relevant and interesting.


Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.