As Lent approaches, I’ve been in a state of spiritual anxiety over the inevitable renunciation that the season demands. Deciding what to “give up” is a major part of my anticipation, and with Ash Wednesday drawing near, I find myself indulging a little more than usual. Justifiably, of course—the weeks of small penance and almsgiving will forgive these indulgences. But at the same time, I worry if what I’m giving up is enough. On the eve of my college graduation, I have so much to thank God for—how could forty days without chocolate or takeout possibly comprise a fitting sacrifice?
I’ve also been thinking of Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. A typical Northern Renaissance work, crowded and somewhat moralizing, it features a bustling Flemish street scene. A tavern is found at the painting’s left: people drink, musicians play, dancers revel. The painting’s right side could not be more different: well-behaved children are gathered outside an austere, gray church, while black-shrouded nuns toil reverently. Their skin is sallow compared to the flushed red of the tavern-goers, though from their facial expressions no one in the painting seems happy.
One of the painting’s main elements, from which the title is likely derived, is found at its bottom center: Prince Carnival, a jovial, colorfully attired man on a giant barrel, jousts with Lady Lent, a spindly, drearily clad nun on a wagon filled with traditional foods of the season, like pretzels and mussels. Instead of lances, Prince Carnival wields a spit laden with meat and Lady Lent brandishes a paddle-shaped bread peel with herrings. She seems to have the upper hand: the prince’s head is slightly rolled back and one of his hands stretches resignedly toward heaven, implying Lent’s triumph. Behind this busy foreground, people prepare food and draw water from a well; beggars labor. And right in the middle, a married couple walks away from the main action: heads covered, they approach the common people at the back of the frame, unsatisfied with both extremes. The painting is one of my favorites for its rich, humorous detail—virtually every time I look, I find something new that makes me smile.