Rediscovered Stories: The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel

by Beth D. Man

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent was painted in 1559 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a Renaissance painter and printmaker from the province of Brabant, Belgium, known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. Art historians sometimes refer to him as the “Peasant Bruegel,” not only to describe his subjects, usually laborers and peasants, but also to distinguish his works from those of his two sons.1

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent measures approximately five feet wide by four feet tall, and every inch of surface teems with a frenetic energy generated by the tension between Carnival revelers and Lenten repenters. One can read this painting like a book from left to right. The story begins on the left where there is an inn from which dozens of Carnival celebrants spill into the street. There are beggars seeking alms, gamblers playing dice, and minstrels playing instruments surrounded by singing crowds. In the background, farther down into the street, a procession of flagellants marches toward the center, a warning sign that the Day of Judgment is at hand. In the center foreground, the artist renders Carnival and Lent as jousting peasants; on the left is the Carnival King, sitting astride a wooden keg and holding, as his weapon, a skewer of roasted game. His sparing opponent, facing him on the right, is the King of Lent, sitting upon a threadbare throne, holding a bread peel at the ready, his crown a woven basket.2 The story ends with the church in the upper right corner. It is a cold, gray stone like an anchor, tethered to the mortality of the hundreds of peasants trying to outlive their destiny.3

In 1559, when Bruegel the Elder completed this work, the city in which he painted, Antwerp, was an up-and-coming power city and epicenter for political and religious rebellion.

The years preceding Bruegel’s career were politically tumultuous. Europe’s most powerful ruler at the time, Charles the Great, was born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1500 and, at the age of sixteen, became the King of Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, and all of the New World territories. Three years later, at the age of nineteen, he was crowned King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. Charles the Great loved to travel the world and preferred to rule from Spain, so he left his sister, Mary of Hungary, in charge of the Netherlands regions. Ruling from afar, he became annoyed with the disgruntled merchants back home in Ghent, who protested the burdensome taxes he imposed. Charles the Great decided to punish Ghent by investing in Antwerp, thus fueling the fires of dissent even more. Finally, in 1555, to put an end the merchant uprisings, he abdicated his throne to his son Philip II and retired to Antwerp.4

Ruling in Bruegel’s time, Philip II made life in Belgium much more difficult for everyone. He was born in Spain and had no sense of nostalgia or loyalty toward the Netherlands or their people. He was a ruthless defender of his Catholic faith, meeting anyone who protested the faith with strict anti-Protestant edicts, and he employed Spanish mercenaries to enforce the laws in cities throughout Belgium. In 1559, Phillip II insisted the Episcopal sees be rearranged; Antwerp’s local bishop was replaced with a bishop from Michelin who was more to Philip’s liking. The merchants of Antwerp were not happy with the loss of local rule and feared this would open the floodgates for the Inquisition to threaten their non-Catholic members. Indeed, it did.

In looking at The Fight Between Carnival and Lent and reflecting on the events surrounding Bruegel and the people of Antwerp in 1559, one cannot help wondering if the abundant application of the color red reflects the artist’s sense of foreboding, stemming from his fear of what is to come. Red, the dominant color throughout the work, is the color of the inquisitor’s robe. Bruegel uses a thick, deep, dark red. It saturates the piece, engaging the senses, suggesting the bitter metal taste and smell of blood and its velvety, gelatinous stickiness. It suggests the Inquisition’s power to mortally wound, and the hemorrhage within the moral crisis that was the Spanish Inquisition.



1. “Pieter the Elder Bruegel – The complete works,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, accessed September 8, 2016,

2. “BRUEGHEL, Pieter the Younger,” Web Gallery of Art, accessed September 8, 2016,

3. “Sad Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Bruegel,” Art Kaleidoscope, accessed September 8, 2016,

4. “Charles V of Habsburg, emperor (1500-1558),” Mediateca di Palazzo Medici Riccardi: Window on the Renaissance, accessed September 8, 2016,,_imperatore_(1500-1558)