Breaking point in history of European spirituality, the Beginning of history of Ignorant Modern man:
Pieter Aertsen’s Meat Stall: Divers aspects of the market piece ( PDF)
Ethan Matt Kavaler
Pieter Aertsen’s well-known Meat Stall iņ the collection of the University of Uppsala is often considered a landmark in the development of European art. Bearing the date ‘March 10, 1551‘, it is one of the earliest and most remarkable examples of market painting, that distinctive combination of still life and low life that enjoyed a considerable
vogue throughout Europe into the eighteenth century.
Yet despite several studies of the depictions of market goods and their vendors, this star
tling presentation of victuals remains a puzzling image, a discontinuous point on the smooth curve of traditional art history.1
A copious display of luxury foods dominates the foreground of Aertsen’s painting. Before an open shed we find a side of beef, a ham, the heads of a cow and a pig, and various other butchers’ wares, along with poultry, butter, cheeses, and fish.
A scene from the New Testament, the Flight into Egypt, can be seen in the background through an opening in the rear of the dilapidated stall . Aertsen, however, presents an unusual variation of this theme by showing the Virgin offering alms to a child. Behind the Holy Family a procession of Netherlanders dressed in sixteenth-century attire advances towards the left, presumably headed for the church that is visible through the adjacent aperture in the stall. 2 By contrast, a party is in progress in the inn at the upper right. Two men from the city are celebrating with a pair of women, whose decolletage suggests the pleasures in store.
There is a clear spatial and conceptual opposition between these background scenes between the charity of the Virgin and piety of the churchgoers on the left and the sensual indulgence of the figures on the right.
The original commission or function of the work has not been identified. An Antwerp provenance has been deduced from an unofficial insignia of the city shown above the opening at the left, a rendering of two severed hands referring to a local legend.3
The prominent sign at the right, however, is disappointingly cryptic. It reads: ‘Behind this point there is land for sale, measured either immediately by the rod according to your pleasure, or 154 rods altogether’ ( hier achter is erve te coope tersto(n)t metter roeije( n ) e lek syn gerief oft teenemale 154).
Although we know a good deal about the subsequent history of market paintings, we are less well informed about the origins of the genre. There seem to be no earlier depictions of still life elements that might suggest Aertsen’s Meat Stall in embryonic state.4 The search for Aertsen’s compositional sources can reveal the range of established im-
agery that would have made his painting comprehensible to contemporaries. What were the traditional visual signis that Aertsen exploited in his Uppsala painting?
Historians of Netherlandish painting have based their interpretations on the continuity of iconographie motifs. Less attention has been paid to the variation among images, the changing context in which specific elements appear, and the constantly evolving reception of these paintings as the market piece became a more common and accepted genre.
We may wonder whether the earliest market paintings, which often include religious scenes, elicited different responses than later ones.5
Let us first examine Pieter Aertsen’s Meat Stall before turning briefly to later market scenes.
Not all compositional elements in the Meat Stall are new. Inconspicuous religious scenes overshadowed by genre details had been an established feature in painting and the graphic arts before Aertsen. Best known are depictions of the Ecce Homo by Lucas van Leyden, Herri Bles, and others from the first half of the sixteenth century.6
Early in his career Aertsen painted two versions of this theme, closely following prototypes by Lucas and the so-called Brunswick Monogrammist.7 This type of com-
position challenges the viewer to find the de-emphasized biblical scene hidden among worldly distractions, a metaphor for the choice between the ‘narrow way’ and the ‘broad way’ in life. see The Choice for Spiritual Ethics,Virtues and Uprightness in our times
The contrast between worldly goods displayed in the foreground and a spiritual example set in the background is an important aspect of many market paintings. Julius Held and Georges Marlier first postulated the ethical connotations of these ‘inverted compositions’; several recent articles on market paintings and kitchen scenes have refined this observation, interpreting the art in the context of moralizing literature.8
Note: A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms
It concerns the Netherlandish artist Pieter Aertsen, a religious painter. When the sacred figurative art began to be contested and destroyed by an extreme Protestant iconoclasm, he changed his residence town and converted his works into genre scene. Very strange ones, indeed, since a scrupulous spectator can discern small holy scenes dissimulated in the background.
His Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt or A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms, which we have in two copies (1551; Uppsala University Art Collection and North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh) is the most ever disconcerting “Flight into Egypt”.
Rather than versus a certain religious confession, it looks the cryptic protest of an autonomous art, against whatever human foolishness and violence.
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What, when adopted by Aertsen, might appear an expedient, became a full invention in the works of his nephew Joachim Beuckelaer. He depicted two “Flights into Egypt”. Now in the Rockox House at Antwerp, the former is more traditional.
In the latter, titled The Four Element: Earth. A Fruit and Vegetable Market with the Flight into Egypt in the Background (1560; National Gallery, London), the author develops his uncle’s lesson into a not less striking allegory.
In the composition, we have three levels: a still life, in the foreground; some figures of peasant women and men, in the middle; a country landscape, with the detail of the Holy Family on a bridge across a stream, in the rear on the left. Despite all, between nature and humankind the sacred mystery survived as a subdued link. That is an anomalous example, of what is conventionally called “inverted perspective”. If we consider it well, not a few things on earth do not happen otherwise…
This “inverted perspective” changes the traditional wisdom of man and it opens the door to the modern perpective of earthly knowledge and wisdom being cut off from his Divine Source.
Patinir, Pieter Aertsen, Brueghel were living in the same period and try to find a way to show us what was wrong in their society: Vanity of earthly knowledge
In Revelation Vanity is represented by the Whore of Babylon. On earth this woman here represents all the pride of the world, all the temptations that we are constantly confronted with in our daily lives and to which we often succumb or the woman with the venom of the earthly senses (the serpent), but nature’s love (the earth) comes to her assistance.
In Chapter 13 the beast from the sea is depraved evil come to kill all virtues in the human heart. It derives its strength from the dragon, the poison of earthly wisdom, while the beast with two horns like a lamb and speaking like a dragon is hypocritical earthly holiness in the flesh which prevents the simple soul from’praying to God (the mark on the right hand or the forehead). The number of the beast is the whole of humanity.
Babylón is interpreted as the confusion of earthly senses; the Whore is false earthly wisdom, her golden jewels hypocritical holiness and the cup fuIl of abominations the carnal appetites.
The beast with seven heads is the evil caused by earthly knowledge and wisdom and its rule on earth; its seven heads are the doctrines of earthly wisdom and the seven kings are personal vindictiveness under the guise of holiness.
Ego rules the world: Anti-“God”, Anti-“Humanity”, Anti-“Nature
The story of the Tower of Babel (like that in The Suicide of Saul, Bruegel’s only other painting with an Old Testament subject) was interpreted as an example of pride punished, and that is no doubt what Bruegel intended his painting to illustrate. Moreover, the hectic activity of the engineers, masons and workmen points to a second moral: the futility of much human endeavour. Nimrod’s doomed building was used to illustrate this meaning in Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools. More about the tower of Babel here
Günther Irmscher, for example, suggests Cicero’s De Officiis as the inspiration for these pictures, which he interprets as painted condemnations of illicit behavior.9 Falkenburg relates market scenes to sixteenth-century landscape paintings, which often present a similar moral choice. In the background of many of these panoramic views, small figures follow diverging paths, one leading toward a worldly destination and the other toward a spiritual haven. For Falkenburg the market paintings reflect common
ethical concerns best exemplified by St. Augustine’s contrast between the civitas terrena and civitas dei.10 see also here
A discussion of Aertsen’s Meat Stall must address the sign displayed prominently at the right. There have been no satisfactory interpretations of this announcement beyond the observation that its message directs attention to the Holy Family in the rear. There may, however, be a more cogent explanation for this message, which relates it thematically to the scene of the Virgin’s charity. In the sixteenth century erve , the term for ‘land’ on the sign, also signified ‘inheritance’ ( erfdeel in modern Dutch). It could be used to express Christ’s legacy in particular, that is to say,salvation. The mystic Jan van Ruusbroec used erve with this meaning in several of his religious writings: ‘He has paid your debts and has both bought and received His Father’s legacy with His blood‘ ( [Hi] heeft uwe scout betaelt ende heeft sijns V ade r erve ghecocht ende vercreghen met sinen bloede)11 We also find erve used in this context in a play from the Ghent landjuweel of 1539, the poetry of Anna Bijns, and other writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.12 Thus the sign in Aertsen’s painting announcing erve te coope performs several functions: it announces that the
plot of land behind the meat stall is for sale; it directs attention to the Holy Family in the background through the phrase ‘Behind this point’; and it suggests through the double meaning of erve that spiritual destiny is at stake, not merely capital holdings.
About 1580 the mystic Hendrik Barrevelt (Hiël) used this idea in a way closely reminiscent of Aertsen’s imagery. In his Hidden Treasure of the Field he states: ‘Thus with St. Paul’s help (that sound within our hearts) let us learn to know and use the time of ignorance for penance and the improvement of our mortal lives. And then, in the final stage of this time [let us] buy the field [den acker koo pen] where the hidden treasure lies buried – Christ’s life, for which we must accept death of the flesh‘.13
Like Hiël, Aertsen may have wished to represent spiritual transformation in the form of a real estate transaction, and it seems likely that most sixteenth-century viewers would have been sensitive to this double meaning. Seeing the Virgin dispensing charity in the background, we are encouraged to read the sign in the context of good works. The ‘legacy for sale’ suggests that we may earn our place in heaven by following the
Virgin’s example. See alsoThe Spiritual Message of Bruegel for our Times
This metaphor may have drawn greater force from the extraordinary land speculation in and around Antwerp at the time. The completion of the new city walls in the late 1540s began a period of intense investment in land. By 1550, the year of the Meat Stall, houses and lots were often resold at a profit soon after their purchase, and an active market had
developed for the sale of taxation rights. Within Antwerp, land values and rents rose to the highest level in the province. As might be expected, considerable objection was voiced by non-investors against what they perceived to be opportunistic exploitation of community resources.
Aertsen’s reference to spiritual salvation behind the offer of real estate investment may contain an ironic comment on Antwerp business ethics, on the use and misuse of wealth, thereby strengthening the associations of worldliness conveyed by the copious banqueting provisions in the foreground.
If the Meat Stall expresses visually the conflict between material and spiritual values, Aertsen’s unusual metaphor for worldly pursuits still requires explanation. What factors might have induced Aertsen to choose an array of meats and other comestibles as a contrast to his exemplum virtutisi Several writers have noted the dual connotations of the Dutch word vlees, which signifies both animal flesh and the pleasures of the flesh.
Further, Kenneth Craig has proposed that the portrayal of meat might have acquired unprecedented significance from a contemporary event. Noticing the date (March 10, 1551) and the insignia of Antwerp on Aertsen’s painting, Craig suggested that the picture had been commissioned by the Antwerp butchers’ guild- to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of their new hall, begun in March 1501. 16
Craig’s thesis was mentioned by Swedish cataloguers of the Uppsala painting and has been tentatively accepted by James Snyder in his survey of the period, Northern Renaissance Art.17 There are, however, a number of problems with this hypothesis, not the least of which is the date. Antwerp citizens rang in the New Year at Easter, not on the First of January. The date inscribed on Aertsen’s picture, March 10, fell before Easter and therefore still belonged to the old year, 1551 . By our modern reckoning, the Meat Stall would be dated 1552 (not 1551) and would mark the fifty-first anniversary of the new Butchers’ Hall, rather than the fiftieth. This would seem a less likely occasion for a commemorative painting.
In addition, Aertsen’s picture includes many products withinthe purview of competing guilds. Butchers did not sell fowl, butter, meat pies, pretzels, or cheese, let alone fish. Furthermore, the paintings normally commissioned by guilds were altarpieces dedicated to patron saints or depicting biblical episodes relating to the activity of the guilds.
The imagery of popular culture, however, may help explain the dominance of butchers’ wares in the Meat Stall . Aertsen’s interest in the customs of common people is documented at this time by his depictions of rural life, such as the Peasant Kermis of 1550 in Vienna.
In composing the Meat Stall , he may have drawn from a similar stock of unofficial
symbols. In the painting in Uppsala the Virgin and Child appear directly above the herring that lie crossed on a silver platter.
The juxtaposition of meat and fish recalls the well-known imagery of the opposition between Carnival and Lent. The Meat Stall seems to derive its overwhelming emphasis on victuals from this subject, in which luxury foods – meat in particular – stand for the indulgence of the flesh, a characteristic
associated with Carnival. The fish and pretzels in Aertsen’s painting, ascetic fare, belong instead to Lent. Although the herring constitute a small fraction of the goods on display, they nonetheless occupy a privileged position: ritually crossed on a platter directly beneath the Holy Family.
The pretzels, too, are located strategically: by the window with the church in the distance. Much like St. Augustine’s civitas terrena and civitas dei , Carnival and Lent stand for opposing values. Popular imagery associated with these traditional seasons of feasting and fasting provided Aertsen with visual terms for the expression of conventional ethical concepts. He was not the first to use the pictorial language
of popular festivities; like Hieronymous Bosch and others before him, he found a comprehending and appreciative audience.23
The contrast between Carnival meats and Lenten fish was one of the commonplaces of European folk imagery. The Rijksmuseum Meer-manno-Westreenianum in The Hague, for example, owns a manuscript of a fools’ testament, which was to be read on Shrove Tuesday. The document, dating from the mid-sixteenth century, includes a song that presents this rivalry in visual terms .
The musical staves are marked with representations of food: pork chops, chicken, and beer for Carnival, fish, mussels, and dried bread for Lent. Fools’ heads complete the notation.24 Roughly contemporary with this manuscript, Pieter Bruegel’s painting of Carnival and Lent of 1558 depicts personifications of these liturgical periods equipped with appropriate foods.
Carnival rides a beer barrel with a pork chop affixed to its front. He balances a chicken pie on his head and carries a spit holding a chicken, a pig’s head, roast meat and sausages.
Lent, for her part, brandishes herring on a baker’s peel, while she rides a cart littered with pretzels and dried bread.
This opposition between the traditional foods of the Carnival and Lenten seasons is more explicit in a Flemish woodcut datable to the mid-sixteenth century ( The print portrays a battle waged between armies of Lenten fish and Carnival meats. On the right Carnival has gained the upper hand. Fish lie disemboweled or impaled on spits and knives. A platoon of dismembered fowl, cow, and pig parts ready for consumption, along with sausages and rabbits, survey their victory. At the left of the woodcut, in contrast, Lent triumphs. A well-disciplined battalion of fish surrounds a castle, as the defeated chickens, ham hocks, sausages, and pigs’ feet hang over gallows or turn on spits over roasting fires.
Similar imagery appears in other countries as well. Throughout the sixteenth century Italian presses produced numerous editions of the Contrasto di Carnesciale e Quaresima, in which personifications of Carnival and Lent each proclaim their own virtues and impugn the character of their rival.