The Church’s official stance on the celebration of carnival has always been ambivalent: the Catholic Encyclopedia states that “it is intelligible enough that before a long period of deprivations human nature should allow itself some exceptional license in the way of frolic and good cheer,” yet at various times the Church has attempted to curb the excessive licentiousness and disorder of carnival celebrations. In addition to concerns about revellers indulging vices such as gluttony, binge-drinking and-- most serious of all-- lust/sexual misconduct, carnival celebrations could also take on a disturbingly anti-establishment tone. Much like the Feast of Fools (described at the beginning of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris where Quasimodo is crowned King of Fools), carnival was a time when society could be turned upside down: institutions such as the aristocracy, the monarchy and the church itself might be held up as the subjects of jest which might even go as far as send-ups of authority figures such as the king and the pope. It’s likely that, on most occasions, this was all done in good fun, but there’s no doubt that at times genuine societal tensions, grievances and revolutionary/anti-clerical sentiments came to the surface.
This political aspect can still be seen in some celebrations today; in New Orleans, for example, some of the krewes organize parades in the days before Mardi Gras with satirical themes. In 2006-- the first Mardi Gras celebration after Hurricane Katrina-- there were many floats that skewered the government for its mismanagement of the natural disaster as well as humorous references to common hardships, such as residents having to throw their refrigerators (full of rotting food after months without electricity) to the curb.
Around the turn of the 16th century, some Europeans began to mark the changing of the ecclesiastical seasons by staging a joust between Carnival and Lent personified. This symbolic struggle had been represented in literature long before people began acting it out (see Chapter 2 “Modes of Representation” in Rabelais’ carnival: text, context and metatext by Sam Kinser).
There are several paintings by artists of the Dutch/Flemish Renaissance that depict this allegorical war between Carnival and Lent. Among the earliest depictions: in Florence, a now lost, tempura-on-linen work by an unidentified Flemish artist was listed among the valuables seized when the Palazzo Medici was ransacked in December 1494. In November of that year, the Medicis had been driven into exile after the commission of a major political blunder by the head of the family, known to history as Piero il Fatuo (“Peter the Foolish” -- 1472-1503). After their departure, the most powerful faction in the city were the followers of the firebrand, fundamentalist monk Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). In 1497 they organized the Bonfire of the Vanities where luxury goods, clothing and furniture were set ablaze together with priceless works of art by Renaissance masters that were deemed immoral (in particular works containing nudity or themes from Classical mythology). Interestingly enough, the bonfire took place on Mardi Gras day.
Also lost is a depiction of the Battle between Carnival and Lent painted by the enigmatic Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch (c1450-1516). Fortunately several copies painted in the 16th-century survive-- one of which can be seen at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. In this copy especially, one can see traces of the surreal/allegorical/esoteric (?) elements that characterize much of Bosch’s work. The inscription at the bottom of the painting reads “This is the dance of Luther with his nun”-- a (seemingly disapproving) reference to Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora which could not have been made by Bosch who died a year prior to the publication of the 95 theses.
But by far the most famous painting of the Battle of Carnival and Lent is the work of Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569), a Dutch painter influenced by Bosch, whose work includes several famous imaginings of the Tower of Babel. Here we see Carnival represented by a fat man riding a beer barrel with a pie as a hat and a skewer of meats serving as his lance, while “Lady Lent” is a gaunt man cross-dressing as a nun, brandishing a baker’s paddle with two herrings strapped to it. There are many elements in Brueghel’s painting which cast the vices and excess of carnival in a negative light, but the observers of Lent do not get off scot-free either: it is likely their ostentatious display of piety and self-denial and the very public acts of alms-giving performed by the wealthy were meant to appear hypocritical (Matthew 6:1-- From Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount-- “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven”). The painting is often interpreted as a satire of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. As for who represents whom, I can think of arguments either way: is it the decadent Catholics battling the sincerely pious Protestants? Or-- more likely-- are the merry revellers the Protestants, rebelling against the solemn (hypocritical?) rites of the Catholic Church. If we believe that Brueghel’s portrayal of both groups is less-than-favorable than perhaps he is criticising or poking fun at both sides of the Reformation while remaining neutral.
Incidentally, Martin Luther himself (1483-1546) addressed the topic of Lent in his sermons. He rejected the contemporary observance of Lent as a “good work,” meant to atone for sins and obtain grace, as a mockery and a perversion (for Luther salvation could only come through faith). Yet, Luther leaves open the idea of Lenten fasting as a means of subjugating the flesh (i.e. exercising discipline over the body and curbing one’s sensual/material desires through abstention/renunciation).
Another interesting (later) depiction of the Battle, painted by Jan Miense Molenaer (1610-1668) during the Dutch Golden Age, can be found at the Indiana Museum of Art. In the foreground of this painting we see a Spanish officer choking a Dutch boy-- a reference to the Low Countries’ struggle for independence.
Finally, the first reference I saw to the Battle of Carnival and Lent came from the soundtrack to the movie Bleu (the first film in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Trois Coleurs trilogy, starring Juliette Binoche). Music plays an important role in the film’s plot, and the score by Zbigniew Preisner includes unforgettable pieces such as “The Song for the Unification of Europe” and the “Van den Budenmayer Funeral Music.” The film also contains two short pieces entitled “The Battle of Carnival and Lent” and “The Battle of Carnival and Lent II.” In the first of these in particular, one can hear two themes-- a relatively understated passage from the Unification and the much more dire strains of the Funeral Music-- competing for ascendancy.
I remember being struck by the idea of a battle between carnival merrymakers and dour Lenten observers and thinking that, in such a struggle, the laws of chronology would allow for only one outcome.
Images: Battle between Carnival and Lent done in the manner of Jheronimus Bosch can be found at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, image taken from wikipedia; Battle between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Breughel the Elder can be found at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (there is also a copy by his son at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels), image taken from Kunsthistorisches Museum website; Battle between Carnival and Lent by Jan Miense Molenaer on display at the Indiana Museum of Art, image taken from the museum’s website.