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Aertsen’s Meat Stall with the Holy Family: The Reading

A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms by Pieter Aertsen

Aertsen’s Meat Stall is an inverted still life, full of veiled symbols and spiritual lessons that we will explore in this post. 

This is a complicated piece that requires some context to appreciate. You can find my blogpost on the backstory to Pieter Aertsen’s Meat Stall here. I strongly suggest reading that post first, then coming back to discover all the hidden meanings in this work. 

Aertsen’s Meat Stall, The Foreground

At first glance, we are viewing a still life that is dominated by various kinds of meat, most notably the ox head with its baleful eye that centers the foreground scene. 

The work is vivid. We can all but smell the meat and hear the flies buzzing. If you have ever walked by an open meat stall, those sensory memories will flood back looking at this picture. 

Some have referred to Aertsen’s Meat Stall, as a slow-burn picture. The more you look, the more you see. Slowly the details reveal themselves, each either deepening your understanding or raising questions to be answered. 

To do this work justice, we will be examining each section separately. 

The Top Left Corner Provides Clues to Context and Meaning

Palms Out, The Symbol for Antwerp

In the top left of Aertsen’s Meat Stall, the artist has included details that ground the painting firmly in the geographical area and culture of Antwerp. 

Discreetly tucked away in a corner we find a pair of hands that are facing out. The motif of two hands is from the coat of arms of the city of Antwerp and is based on the myth of a giant troll.

Druron Antigon

Druron Antigon, the troll, collected a fee from all of the merchant ships that tried to travel up the river to Antwerp to trade. If merchants tried to cheat Antigon, or not pay the tax he would cut off their hands. Then the brave knight Brabo saved the day, putting an end to the trolls’ tyranny, and cut off his hands.  According to the myth, this is how the city of Antwerp got its name. In Dutch “werpen” means hand throwing.

The pair of hands is also carved into the walls of the city. and it is believed they were included here to tell the viewer that the commission for the work was from the city of Antwerp.

Merchant Marks on the  Red PoleAertsen's Meat Stall detail

Just over from the hand plaque we find a red pole with several markings upon it. In white paint, or chalk we find parallel lines flanking an X, the letters g and b, and a small bell.

The top markings are believed to be a merchant’s identification marks, and they were often put onto boxes and crates. They could also be accounting marks. Some have suggested that the X and lines are meant to be a disguised symbol of the cross.  Northern artists were known for tucking all sorts of small details into their works that supported and alluded to underlying spiritual themes, so this is certainly possible.

Symbols of the Eucharist in Aertsen’s Meat Stall

The letters g and b were an abbreviation for the Latin, “gens bona,” or the good people. In between the letters is a three-leaf clover that was associated with the Trinity.

Bell

The small bell occurs in other works of this time and is believed to reference the small bells that were rung during mass in the middle ages. The bells were rung at the precise moment that the host (or communion bread) was elevated, the belief being that this was when transubstantiation takes place. Transubstantiation is the conversion of the substance of the Eucharist (wine and bread of communion) into the blood and body of Christ.

Aertsen Meat Stall detailPretzels and Wine Jug 

This reading of the bell as a reference to communion is strengthened further by the wine jug that is sitting on the shelf next to the pole, and the pretzels (bread) that are hanging on the peg below.

In particular, the pretzels are curious to me. Everything else fits the offerings of a meat stall, but the pretzels are out of place. Pretzel’s three lobes recall the trinity and they were frequently eaten during periods of fasting, especially during the season of lent. 

Lent, the period the church prepares to remember the death of Christ on the cross, is an essential theme in this work.  

Still Life as a Metaphor for Christ’s Death

Now we move on to the meat, which is impossible to ignore as the meat is what dominates this work. The variety and realism are impressive.

Because this work is monumental, measuring 45 by 66 inches, the meat and birds are life-sized. We can see the downy undersides of the chickens, the glistening, dripping skins on the swollen sausages, and the shining metals of plates. The tactile quality of the work is overwhelming, one feels they can reach out and feel the bristles on the oxen’s muzzle. Aertsen’s realistic presentation is macabre.

Butchered Animal’s of Aertsen’s Meat Stall
Aertsen Meat Stall Detail

During the Middle Ages, butchered animals were considered an appropriate metaphor for important Christian themes.

First, the animals remind us of the transient nature of life. Contemplating our coming death was considered a healthy spiritual practice and references to death were common in a still life. Only in truly understanding the brevity of life can we appreciate it and prioritize what we spend our lives doing. 

Secondly, a butcher shop, with all of the various cuts of meat reminds us of the weaknesses of the flesh, another recurring theme in the religion of the middle ages. This theme will be explored in more detail when we move to the small scene on the right of the painting.

Lastly,  butchered animals were believed to be appropriate metaphors for the Eucharist. While bread and wine were the common references to communion, in the Northern countries it was common to include subtle references, or less literal analogies for spiritual truths.  Here the dead animals remind us that they had to suffer and die before we could gain physical sustenance from their sacrifice. This echoes Christ’s suffering and dying for us so that we could live spiritually.

Aertsen Meat Stall DetailWhite Cloth

Furthering the image of the Eucharist are the sausages offered up on the clean white cloth. I frankly doubt any butchers were making meat offerings on snow-white linens, so we know we are meant to read more into this particular image. Perhaps if you are Catholic the meaning would be more obvious.

During the part of the service when Holy Communion is served the priest would present the host without touching it by wrapping it in a clean, white cloth. As described above, it was believed that the bread and wine were transformed into the blood and body of Christ, and therefore must be treated with the utmost respect. If we take the various types of meat in this work as a metaphor for the Eucharist, then presenting the meat ‘body’ on a  white cloth makes sense. This will be a repeating theme when we get to the background scene of Mary.

The sausages being presented crossed furthers the analogy by suggesting the cross. 

Crossed Fish

We see another common symbol of Lent and Christ’s crucifixion in the crossed fish on the platter. Artists frequently crossed a wide variety of items to symbolize the cross and give viewers more things to contemplate as they viewed a work. Fish were favorites of this type of presentation because of their connection to the early church.


The placement of the crossed fish is also important. The plate is just below the scene with the Holy Family and draws our attention to the background scene.  Additionally, the colors unite the two elements, which has us asking how they are related. The fish, referencing Christ’s death, give spiritual context to the scene of the Holy Family. 

 Inversion in Aertsen’s Meat Stall

The foreground and the background have been inverted, the first time in European art that we have a monumental canvas with a still-life inversion. So again, we have to ask why? Aertsen’s compositional choices are counter to all the prevailing art practices, at a time when conformity to expected norms dictated an artist’s ability to earn a living. Innovating and breaking conventions were not admired in the art world then as they might be today. So why take this unorthodox approach?

It’s important to remember when examining works that there is no reason to limit ourselves to one interpretation, there is no right or wrong way to read a painting. One can make the case for the meat in the foreground carrying spiritual meaning, we can also make the case that the meat in the foreground is meant to contrast with the spiritual meaning of the ‘hidden’ pictures. I find both theories give me plenty to think about, and don’t feel the need to choose one interpretation over the other.  

With that said, let’s explore another explanation for inverting this work. 

Aertsen’s Meat Stall has Two Levels

One could say, Aertsen’s Meat Stall has been painted on two levels. There is a juxtaposition of themes, with what appears to be the lower subject matter dominating the canvas, and the higher, or important subject matter relegated to the background of the painting.

In going about our day-to-day lives we are naturally focused on the things of this world. What will we eat? What do we wear? How will we pay for those things? Every generation throughout history has had to deal with these same preoccupations. This is the universal experience of humanity, and from this universal reality arise many of our problems. Once our basic needs are met it is easy to keep our eyes focused on the temporal and slide into gluttony, greed, and lust.

Shifting our focus from the physical delights of our world to the spiritual truths that give meaning and substance to our existence can prove difficult. Looking past the bounty and potential for lavish meals in the foreground of this work, to consider the scene of Mary sharing her bread with a child in the background takes effort.

The foreground speaks to our carnal desires, while the background asks that we consider eternal themes and spiritual food.

Aertsen’s Meat Stall, The Background ScenesAertsen's Meat Stall Detail

Although the scenes are not continuous, they are meant to be read right to left with each scene taking us further into the painting. Just as the meat of the foreground could represent our carnal life with the background work bringing out spiritual themes, the background scenes also move from worldly concerns to spiritual ones. 

On the right we have feasting, drinking, and sex, contrasted with the left side with pilgrims moving toward the church, and the Holy Family caring for the poor. 

Feast

In the far right upper section of the canvas we see an indoor scene with four people, 2 men and 2 women. The device of a cut away wall was frequently used in Northern art, so that we can view what the people inside are doing. 

Here we have a picture that brings to mind genre paintings of taverns or brothels. We could also find this portion of the canvas reminiscent of works of the prodigal son. One of the men warms himself by the fire, or at least that is the common understanding. I find the positioning and facial expression of the man odd. The women sit by an open window and do not appear to be suffering from the cold, and so the need to not just be next to the fire, but to take this position seems extreme. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

The two women are chatting with a man who appears to have been walking past the house and is leaning in the window. At first glance there is nothing untoward in this, but if we allow our gaze to move to the next scene we will see mussel and oyster shells scattered about on the ground. 

Mussels and oysters were considered an aphrodisiac and were often used to infer lust or sexual immorality. The shells alter the scene from a neighborly visit into one of worldly pleasures with erotic undertones. 

White Towel

Another odd addition to this scene is the carcass of an ox with a white towel hanging from a wooden rod. The butchered ox further connects this background scene with the Butchers Guild, perhaps physically tying this room with others that would have been in the Butcher’s Hall. 

The rod with the white towel is truly out of place, yet is never mentioned in all the research I did on this work. I find that both curious and compelling. 

Oddly, and we should note oddities when looking at paintings, a white cloth appears three times in this work in spaces that don’t make sense on a practical level.

In the foreground, we saw crossed fish set on a pure white cloth, another odd placement. I don’t tend to place raw fish, with their attendant mess, onto good linens. As noted above, crossed fish were associated with lent and with Christ sacrifice. The cloth tied the crossed fish even tighter to the idea of Christ sacrifice because of the use of a similar cloth by priests when handling the elements of the Eucharist. . 

Second Appearance of the White TowelAertsen Meat Stall Detail

Conceivably,  that gives us the context to understand this second appearance of a towel that is unusually displayed. It’s reasonable to assume that any cloth used in a butcher shop would not be pristine, nor would it be hanging close to the meat as we see here. So we reasonably have to ask, why?  As we’ve noted, butchered meat could be understood as symbolic of Christ’s broken body, and so the hanging cloth, symbolizing the cloth that holds the bread of the Eucharist, is perhaps reinforcing that image. 

Again, we need to ask ourselves why the ox and cloth, or the Eucharist, is placed in a scene which seems to suggest an illicit sexual encounter. Perhaps the artist is drawing attention to our need for a Christ, placing his sacrifice in the midst of a scene which shows humankinds fallen state. 

Aertsen's Meat Stall DetailThird Appearance of the White Towel

As we move to the next scene in the painting we will have a third white towel turn up in an unusual place, the Virgin Mary will hand a child bread that she holds in a cloth. Again we have the connection to Christ’s body sacrificed for us as, during communion, the bread stands for Christ’s body. The priest holds the bread in a cloth, in a similar way to Mary offering the bread to the child. 

Each appearance of the towel is tied to Christ’s sacrifice, and is connected to images associated with Lent. 

I think an understanding of Carnival and Lent will help to further clarify this point and our painting as a whole. Antwerp was a city with a history of elaborate Carnival celebrations, and enforcement of Lent laws. The iconography of Carnival and Lent in our painting might require explanation today, but to the intended audience the inferences would have been obvious. 

Carnival and Lent: Context of Aertsen’s Meat Stall

Some have posited that this painting is a visual representation of Carnival and Lent. For many of us, our understanding of Carnival might be limited to the parties and parades in Rio De Janeiro or New Orleans. However, those events do not properly conjure up the idea of Carnival in 16th Century Netherlands. 

Carnival was a time of feasting, parties, and parades that over time became more and more extravagant. 

Lent was a 40 day period that preceded Easter, and was meant to mimic the 40 days that Christ spent fasting in the wilderness.  This period has strict dietary restrictions along with additional church services and prayers. 

Food’s role in Carnival

Detail from Bruegel’s Fight between Carnival and Lent

With origins in European folk customs, Carnival was a time of feasting at the ending of winter. In traditional farm cultures, before the age of mass transit and refrigeration, it was not winter that was hardest to get through in terms of food, it was the beginning of spring. In the early spring, the food stores set aside in the fall for winter eating were either gone or spoiling, and the food from gardens was not ready to be harvested. 

As food approached the spoiling point, particularly meat, feasts were planned. This allowed people to eat the last of the stores before they went bad. These feasts featured all of the rich foods that had the added fat content to carry people through the lean weeks before spring gardens were produced. In particular these feasts emphasized meat, butter, and lard. 

In contrast, during Lent, these foods were not allowed. Instead people relied on dried breads, fish, and boiled root vegetables. Pretzels, with their simple ingredients and three lobes symbolizing the trinity, were the ideal food of lent. The pretzel became a visual image artists used to clue viewers into both the actual practice of lent, and the spiritual messaging of that season. 

The rules of Lent were strictly enforced by laws, and those found breaking them were brought to trial. There are instances of these trials bringing large cities to a standstill as the fates of those involved were settled. Partiers, who continued their celebrations past Shrove Tuesday suffered rather severe consequences. 

Sex and Carnival

As one might expect, with a weeks long period of celebrating, drinking, and feasting, sex came into play. As days lengthened and spring approached most cultures have various ways to celebrate and encourage fertility and the continuation of the community. During Carnival there were a variety of traditions that highlighted fertility. 

It is hard to sum up these traditions quickly, as they varied over time and location, but often they included a symbolic wedding, and conversely, a public shaming of those who were believed to have exhibited loose sexual morals during the preceding year. These public shamings were most often of women, and, not surprisingly, could serve political purposes rather than factual cases of misconduct. 

Switching of Social Roles, Another Kind of Inversion

One of the key elements of Carnival in Netherlandish celebrations was the reversal of societal norms. For a day, or a week depending on the era, city leaders would adopt the roles of servants, and the lowest groups on the social ladder would be elevated to governing roles. 

This social role reversal had its roots in Saturnalia, a Roman holiday that gave slaves equality for a day, or week. The practice was adopted in varying ways throughout the Roman empire. 

Artists were fascinated with this aspect of the celebration as seen in the works of several Netherlandish artists, including Bruegel’s, “The Fight between Carnival and Lent.” 

The inversion of social roles is an interesting consideration given this entire painting is an inversion. We can appreciate how the artists have used inversions in several ways to create thought provoking images. To complete the image of Carnival we will move forward in the painting to the man in red who is drawing water. 

Aertsen Meat Stall DetailButcher, Key to Aertsen’s Meat Stall

Moving to the next scene we see a man dressed in red,  pouring water into a jug. He is surrounded by oyster and mussel shells that are strewn around the ground. 

The Red Tunic

We know that this man is a butcher by his red tunic and the tools on his belt. Only butchers were allowed to wear these distinctive red shirts which not only let the viewer know his profession, but also his social standing. In the 16th century, the Antwerp Butcher’s Guild was one of the wealthiest in Europe. There was a strict limit on the numbers of butcher’s allowed and those memberships were passed down to the next generation creating generational wealth and prestige. 

The Clear Connecting of Lust to the Feasting

As we’ve noted above, we also have the scattered shells around his feet which are an accepted indication of lust and sexual activity. We might have felt we were reading too much into the feasting scene, making it provocative rather than just neighbors interacting. However, the addition, and sheer numbers of shells scattered on the ground clears up any confusion for the viewer. 

Could the Water be Alluding to the Wine of Communion?

If we follow the implied messaging of the hanging carcass and white towel being symbolic of Christ’s body sacrificed for believers, and therefore hinting at the offering of the body during the ceremony of Communion we can reasonably wonder if the blood/wine element of the Eucharist  is also present. 

The butcher is drawing water and filling a jug, reminiscent of Christ’s first miracle at the Wedding at Cana. The story, as told in the gospel’s, has Jesus attending a wedding and during the feast the host runs out of wine. Jesus tells servants to draw water and serve that. Miraculously the water is turned to wine. 

If we are meant to understand that the carcass is Christ’s body by the simple addition of a towel, I think it is reasonable to assume a man drawing water is meant to prompt memories of Christ providing wine at a feast. 

Placing these references to the Eucharist in the vignettes that are meant to portray the physical, secular side of life is intriguing. If we agree that this area of the canvas is meant to communicate debauched living, then Aertsen is inserting the Eucharist, and therefore Christ’s sacrifice into the moments of life when it is most needed. 

Holy Family Giving AlmsAertsen's Meat Stall Detail

As we continue to move through the background scene we next come to the portrayal of the Holy Family. We are clued into their identity by the traditional portrayal of Mary on a donkey clothed in blue robes holding an infant as Joseph leads them. 

Crossed Trees

We are also meant to note the two crossed trees in the background of the scene. While the other trees are a bit indistinct, these trees draw the gaze. Trees, the source material of the cross, are depicted here to give us context for interpreting the scene playing out. 

Infant Jesus

You will note the very stiff, upright position of the infant Jesus. He is wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes that strongly resemble funeral wrappings. This is another visual clue that artists used in nativity paintings to remind the reader that Jesus came to earth to die for us. The swaddling clothes mentioned in the Biblical narrative, take on the appearance of funeral wrappings. 

Bread as Christ’s Body

Mary is handing bread wrapped in a white cloth to a child. The child belongs to the beggar, likely his father, seated behind him on a basket. The figure has his hands raised in a gesture of supplication and before him on the road is a paper held down with rocks. Likely the paper explains the desperate situation they are in and asks for help. 

The child uses a basket to receive the bread from Mary. Within the Catholic tradition, during communion the bread is transubstantiated, or it becomes, in a sense, the body of Christ. As that happens, the bread is holy, and the recipient never touches it. The priest, having carefully prepared, and going through a ceremonial washing of the hands, places the bread directly into the congregant’s mouth.

Witnesses

Behind this vignette of the holy family we see a line of people walking. There have been many interpretations of the witnesses of Mary giving alms. As we will see in a moment, these people are on their way to Antwerp Cathedral. 

Many do not attach any type of moral judgment on these witnesses, instead interpreting the bystanders as merely curious about the scene playing out. 

Others interpret the straggling line of people as poor pilgrims, perhaps fleeing from a dangerous area and moving toward the Cathedral. In this narrative the pilgrims are identifying with the plight of Mary and Joseph who must flee to Egypt to save the infant Jesus’ life. 

Others believe it is a pointed message from the artist. These men and women are making a pilgrimage to the Cathedral. Pilgrimages were often undertaken to solicit favor from God, to earn forgiveness, and to store up ‘credit’ with God. Prior to Christ’s death this was done by offering animal sacrifices. In the system commonly held to be true in Antwerp, the church doled out forgiveness on God’s behalf, sometimes by confession and repeating prayers, at others by selling pardons or demanding pilgrimages; which also brought money into the churches coffers. 

Our pilgrims have missed the fact that rather than the Cathedral housing God’s presence, or having the authority to forgive sin, God himself is right there in front of them and will be the final sacrifice for sin, ending the sacrificial system. 

Mary offers bread or physical sustenance to this child and his desperate father. This will temporarily meet their physical needs. Jesus offers more, he will offer his body to meet their spiritual needs. 

Aertsen's Meat Stall DetailChurch Scene Of Aertsen’s Meat Stall 

In the final vignette, in the background of the painting, we see a Cathedral painted into a contemporary (for Aertsen) scene. This was commonly done to make the story more relatable. 

The Cathedral is easily identified as Antwerp Cathedral due to its distinctive, conical roof and corner buttresses. The Cathedral is further identified by the hands directly above it. 

Connecting the Still life to the background scenes

Aertsen has cleverly used the items of the front still life to frame and give context to the scenes that are playing out in the background. 

In the vignette of Antwerp Cathedral we can see that directly above the Cathedral are the “palms out” hands that represent the city. 

Below the scene of the Holy Family we have the platter of crossed fish that echo the crossed trees in the center of the scene. Northern artists were known to insert crosses in all manner of ways to continually call their viewers back to the cross. 

Additionally the strong diagonals of the pole direct the viewer’s eye to the scene of the family. This direction is intensified by the pig’s ear which breaks through the picture frame and is inserted into the vignette. 

The scene with the butcher drawing water is beautifully framed  by the beams of the stall itself, and our attention is directed there by the drips coming off of the intestines hanging in the meat stall. 

The Sign, A Contemporary ControversyAertsen's Meat Stall Detail

At the upper right, posted on top of the meat stall, is a small sign in Dutch  that reads: “Land for sale out back: 154 rods, either by the piece or all at once.” This text refers to an actual sale of land that took place in 1551. It must have been important to the picture’s original meaning, because the sign appears in all four, almost identical versions of the Meat Stall that Aertsen painted. 

To make a long story short, the city of Antwerp decided to develop what was then the southeast side of town. Land being in short supply, the city council forced the prestigious order of Augustinian nuns who ran St. Elisabeth’s hospital to sell their property at a loss. This created quite a bit of controversy as many saw the city’s actions as sacrificing the good work of the nuns for financial gain.

Then, to add to the injustice, the city realized they had purchased too many acres. The decision was made to sell the surplus to Gillis van Schoonbeke, a notorious real estate developer whose activities were so unpopular that they even caused riots. Land, basically stolen from the nuns, was then sold to an infamous cheat.  At one point the rioting escalated to the point that imperial troops had to be called in to stop the violence.

Concluding Thoughts

Northern Artists of this time period imbued meaning into every small detail of their work. They layer meaning, over meaning, over meaning. We can see in this work that Aertsen is a master. He has provided the viewer an endless supply of material to ponder. One can sit with just one element, or try to tie all of the disparate elements together for a cohesive sermon of sorts. 

Writing this blog has been a challenge due to the wealth of detail. I hope that you, like me, will continue to come back to this work to see what new ideas will be sparked. 

 

Sources

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.

 https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/northern/antwerp-bruges/a/pieter-aertsen-meat-stall

 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.

E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)

Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History (Laurence King Pulishing Ltd., London, England 2018)

Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses

Professor William Koss, History of European Art  Lecture series, Great Courses

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)

National Gallery of Art website  www.nga.gov

Metropolitan Museum of Art website  www.metmuseum.org

The Getty Center www.getty.edu

Old Testament Figures in Art, Edited by Stefano Zuffi. (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2003

The Library of Great Masters: Michelangelo Scala/ Riverside 1989

https://magicfishbones.com/2016/06/07/thinking-about-whos-sitting-down-to-dinner-in-north-carolina/

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

 

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