From the Loyola Press
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.
Art expresses the key themes of the season – conflict between secular and religious, the forces of temptation and selfishness affecting all of us, the importance of retreat, repentance, and conversion in this season. We have three pieces of art to view these themes thanks to the Loyola press
1. Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent,” 1559
Sometimes when the spiritual and the secular clash, we can see the hand of God at work. In Pieter Brueghel’s The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, there is a clash of contrasts happening in this 16th-century Dutch village. Near the center of the hustle and bustle a curious pair is ready to spar: “Carnival,” represented by a well-endowed man riding a barrel, wears a meat-pie hat and is ready for action with a spear loaded with roasted pork. “Lent” faces him, personified by a clear-eyed but gaunt woman on a spare cart, wearing a beehive and holding out two fish on a peel. She is surrounded by loaves, pretzels, and a basket of mussels.
2. Carl Spitzweg, “Ash Wednesday,” 1855–1860
Carl Spitzweg’s “Ash Wednesday” invites us into the Lenten season with a spirit of introspective piety. We meet a downcast carnival clown, seated in the corner of a cell, his head bent, arms crossed, and face in shadows. A clown normally represents revelry, satire, excess, exuberance, letting go of convention, and laughing at life. But here, seated somber in a cell, he offers none of that. Instead, he sits in a nearly empty stone room, the color of ash and arid desert, with only a pitcher of water as provision. Leaving the revelry of Mardi Gras, this clown now dwells in the simplicity of the Lenten season.
3. John Berney Crome, “Great Gale at Yarmouth on Ash Wednesday,” 1836
The main forces in this scene are the waves and the clouds. The clouds, dynamic in their movement, communicate the unseen power of the wind. That wind stirs up the waves that toss the boat on the left and sprays water forcefully against the row of coastal houses on the right. This all brings to mind a battle between nature and the human-made elements of the scene.
Ash Wednesday calls out with urgency: “now is the acceptable time…now is the day of salvation.” Lent calls us to conversion, and conversion without delay. The path to the Easter font, though, is often through turbulent waters. Like the boat in Crome’s painting, we are tossed in the waves of our own desires and follies. Or, like the shore houses on the right, we are assaulted by our temptations and selfishness. Ash Wednesday is the day to face these anew with the belief that the wind is not a threat, but perhaps the breath of the Spirit that seeks to drive away all that keeps us from the fullness of life.