Aertsen’s, A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms, is an inverted still life that presents an allegory of physical and spiritual food. Layered images challenge the viewer to step back and view the work through a variety of lenses, thus coming to appreciate the complexities of Aertsen’s masterpiece.
Created in 1551 by the Netherlandish painter, Pieter Aertsen, this seminal work brings the every day to the forefront imbuing it with meaning and weight, while simultaneously weaving in a spiritual narrative with subtlety and pointed clarity.
In this post, we will explore this fascinating work’s background information. If you want to further explore and understand the hidden symbols in this work, you can find my post about that here.
But before we jump in, let’s take a few minutes to get familiar with the work.
10 Minute Look at Aertsen’s Meat Stall
At some point in my art appreciation journey, I heard that when you were examining a work for the first time you should set a timer and look at it for a full 10 minutes. It’s hard to do. After a minute or so, it feels like you have seen all that there is to see. But if you persevere you will continue to find more. The small details, the brushstrokes, the perspective, and the colors will all begin to take on new clarity. I find myself asking questions, looking harder, and wondering.
If this idea of looking at a painting for an extended time appeals to you, you couldn’t find a better one to start with than Aertsen’s Meat Stall.
As the 10 minutes tick by and I move past the obvious display of meat in the foreground, the background vignettes begin to emerge. The scene in the center appears to be Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. I can surmise this from the traditional elements that Aertsen has included. Mary is dressed in her traditional blue, the baby is still in swaddling clothes, and she rides a donkey that her husband leads.
If I read the title of the work I will know that this is the Holy Family giving alms, but paintings during this era were rarely titled, let alone displayed with the title nearby. So I try not to read any information before I first examine a work, coming to it with fresh eyes. Let’s do a reading of this work, many details have the potential to be intriguing.
Inversion, What is it?
Aertsen’s, The Meat Stall, is an inverted still life, a fascinating, and unusual choice. Here we have three distinct genre’s on one canvas. There is the still life of meats, a biblical painting of the Holy Family, and a genre work of everyday folks eating and drinking. Artists during this period generally followed fairly rigid rules about what constituted art, and within those rules there was a pecking order. Biblical and historical paintings were considered the grandest. Artist could charge more for a Biblical work and large canvases were reserved for these paintings with these weightier themes. A still life was at the bottom of the prestige scale and was painted on small canvases that could be displayed in a home.
Here we have an inversion of these norms. The canvas is massive and the still life dominates. The important scene, the biblical narrative, is tucked into the background, painted so small that it takes effort to identify who is in the scene. So we are left to wonder who was this artist and why would he make such an unusual choice.
Who was Pieter Aertsen?
Aertsen, a Dutch artist, painted this work in 1551 just as the Northern Renaissance was giving way and moving toward mannerism. A reminder, nothing in art history moves in a steady timeline but overlaps moves backward and then leaps forward. We see this in all periods of art, and Northern Mannerism is no different. I find this blending and borrowing by Aertsen one of the fascinating elements of his work. He is regarded as a bit of an eccentric aberration, even in his own time. He embraced the realism of the North with the gracefulness of Italy. He painted the mundane scene of life and then tucked in a Biblical scene. His art can be hard to categorize because he existed in a unique in-between space that was his own.
A Forgotten Master
Aertsen was a well-known master in his day, in fact, today we refer to him as a ‘forgotten’ master. Innumerable artists were well known and respected during their lives, but due to a variety of historical events we have lost their work, and no longer recognize them. Aertsen is one of these forgotten masters.
As time passed his name faded, but his influence did not. Many Dutch painters were influenced by his style and compositions, even if those beyond his home country ceased to speak of him. Rubens, Van Dyck, and Vermeer all owned his paintings, and others were in the collections of many royal families, including Napoleon.
During the 16th century, Antwerp was the second largest city in Northern Europe and quickly developed a wealthy mercantile class. Previous to this period artists were largely employed by the church or the nobility. A rising mercantile class meant commissions from an expanding number of sources.
Having a growing middle class changed the world of art in Northern Europe in several ways. First, it expanded ideas of what constituted art. The church and nobility largely commissioned works with biblical or historical themes and portraits. As members of the mercantile class wanted to decorate their homes a market for landscapes, still lifes, and genre paintings developed.
Secondly, as artists had more choices in the subject matter they began to specialize. With a larger pool of customers, an artist who loved to paint still lifes could make a living at that.
Along with these economic shifts, religious changes were also causing artists to expand their offerings.
A Northern Protestant
Antwerp was caught up in the wars between Catholics and Protestants. In the end, they embraced the teachings of John Calvin who taught that most religious arts were idolatrous. Believing the elaborate altarpieces in Catholic churches were theologically problematic, they also believed that the lavish expense of creating them encouraged greed and an inappropriate focus on riches in the church.
Just as the Catholic church had once dictated what was acceptable in the art community, now Protestant leaders condemned many forms of art that had been accepted during the Renaissance.
In Italy, the Renaissance was shaped by discoveries of the ancient world. Recovered statues celebrating the human body gave artists the freedom to explore the nude. Translations of Greek philosophers inspired a resurgence of interest in Humanism and Greek and Roman mythological figures were increasingly incorporated into the iconography of the church. Beauty was the goal, beauty reflected God’s character, and a return to the classical images of the past embodied much of what Italian artists were working towards.
In contrast, the Northern Renaissance was shaped by a strong preference for realism and celebration of the natural world. It is hard to overemphasize the influence that the printing press had on the direction Northern art headed. The printing press heralded an explosion of ideas and intellectual development that heavily influenced art in the North.
In many ways, the ideals of the Italian Renaissance are exemplified by Catholic art, and the ideals of the Northern Renaissance reflect the ideals of the Protestants. We have a give and take between culture, intellectual pursuits, and art, each influencing and reflecting the other.
In Antwerp, this give and take between disciplines influenced artists like Aertsen in unexpected and delightful ways. It also led to the destruction of many of his works.
A Victim of Iconoclasm
After the Netherlands gained independence from Spain, there were waves of iconoclasm or the destruction of Catholic art throughout the Low Countries. Calvinists, believing that much of church art was idolatrous, destroyed untold numbers of masterpieces. Breaking into churches to smash and burn these idols, many of Aertsen’s works were destroyed.
These periods of iconoclasm led to many masters of the North being forgotten and swept up in the religious conflicts of their day.
Some art historians believe the inverted setup of the Meatstall work, subordinating the biblical narrative and emphasizing the still life in the foreground, was done specifically to escape Calvinist accusations of idolatry.
We do know that these periods of iconoclasm, along with the economic changes in the North contributed to the rise of Genre painting.
An Originator of Genre Painting
Aertsen holds a special place in the timeline of Art because he pushed us to reconsider the subject matter of serious art. Traditionally, biblical and historical scenes were the only ones considered ‘worthy’ of being painted on monumental canvases. The expense of a large work had to be justified, and so the subjects and stories portrayed on these canvases had to be significant.
Aertsen and his contemporary, Bruegel, began to alter this accepted view and both men began to elevate and dignify the lives of common men and women. This type of art, now called genre painting came into its own in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Netherlands.
Although Aertsen and Bruegel are often paired as the originators of Genre painting, their work differs in many ways. Generally, Aertsen is considered ‘ground zero’ in terms of genre painting, inspiring and influencing other artists like Bruegel.
Bruegel paints with an often humorous realism. He knows these people and sees them every day. You can dive deeper into some of his works here and here. Like Aertsen he uses this new form of art to provide political commentary on the happenings of his day.
Compared to Bruegel, Aertsen is a bit of a bridge between Italy and the North. His subject matter is decidedly Northern, but his figures, particularly the women, are the idealized versions more popular in the south. He paints everyday people, but with dignity using poses that come from classical art or court portraiture.
Perhaps it is the in-between nature of his work that kept Aertsen from gaining the status of Bruegel. Art history seems to favor those artists who move art forward toward the next school of thought, and in doing so miss or forget the works of these critical in-between steps.
As we’ve touched on, art commissions are now coming from a variety of sources. One of these new sources is the guilds of Antwerp. Guilds were formal associations of artisans or merchants who oversaw the practice of their trade in a specific area.
Guilds wielded a great deal of power in the economies of Northern cities as the mercantile class grew. Many guilds had halls that they commissioned artwork for. Often these works were group portraits of the members, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is a particularly famous painting of this type. Because these works were meant to decorate a hall they were often very large canvases providing the artist with challenges similar to painting the altarpieces of earlier days.
It is believed that this work was commissioned by the Butcher’s Guild of Antwerp for their guild hall. This explains the work’s massive size, much too large for the typical home, the painting measures nearly 4 feet by over 5 feet, making the still life in the foreground larger than life.
There are multiple elements in the work that points to the Butcher’s Guild as the source of the commission. The most prominent figure in the work is the man with the jug who is dressed in the plain red clothes of the Butcher’s guild. Only members of the guild were allowed to wear that coat.
The subject matter of the painting points to the Butcher’s guild as it displays the wares as they might have appeared within the guild hall, the richest guild in the Netherlands.
The Butcher’s Guild in Antwerp was the most powerful in the Netherlands at the time. Their power is exemplified in their guild hall. The hall itself was a landmark in the old town and was located not far from the Cathedral. The hall was a beautiful vaulted building with the first floor serving as the massive meat market. The second floor was made up of a large meeting room.
The Butchers Guild was supported by Emperor Charles V and was one of the few guilds that had a written charter. This charter allowed the guild to establish a monopoly within the city. There could only be 62 butchers within the city limits, and when a butcher died the position went to his son or close male heir. Everyone in Antwerp who wished to purchase meat had to buy it at the Meat Hall.
This painting was made the same year as the 50th anniversary of the guild hall and was likely a commission made for that celebration. It was common for guilds to purchase religious paintings, however, Aertsen’s inversion of the religious elements was still unusual.
Why Invert the Work?
There a several reasons Aertsen might have inverted the painting, and we will likely never know for sure. As we’ve discussed it might have been to avoid censure by the ruling Protestants. As historians are fairly certain other works of Aertsen were destroyed, it is likely he hoped to avoid having that happen again.
More compelling to me however is the spiritual teaching the inversion allows us to reflect upon. With the secular foreground that is so prominent, we have to look closely to find the background narrative stories. The questions that the placement raises are enough to justify doing it. It forces the viewer to begin to engage with the work.
Refusing to accept the meaninglessness attributed to these biblical narratives, Marlier claimed that their diminution scale was a pictorial mechanism of spiritual teaching, and contrasted with the secular concerns in the foreground.
Kavaler, Ethan Matt. “Pieter Aertsen’s Meat Stall Divers Aspects of the Market Piece.” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art, vol. 40, Brill, 1989, pp. 67–92, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43888576.
CRAIG, KENNETH M. “Pieter Aertsen and ‘The Meat Stall.’” Oud Holland, vol. 96, no. 1, Brill, 1982, pp. 1–15, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42711079.
Moxey, Keith. “Interpreting Pieter Aertsen: The Problem of ‘Hidden Symbolism.’” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art, vol. 40, Brill, 1989, pp. 29–39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43888574.
Sullivan, Margaret A. “Aertsen’s Kitchen and Market Scenes: Audience and Innovation in Northern Art.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 81, no. 2, [Taylor & Francis, Ltd., College Art Association], 1999, pp. 236–66, https://doi.org/10.2307/3050691
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And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.