Meat Still Life
This is one Masterpiece I plan to see when I visit Uppsala, Sweden this summer. It is in the University Collection there. It was painted by Pieter Aertsen in 1551. Over 450 years ago people were still enthralled with meat. (animal flesh of all kinds) The artist lived 70 years, which is long in the 1500's.(he must've been a vegetarian) He worked and lived mostly in Antwerp (more than three decades). This area is now the "low lands" or Netherlands/Belgium. It was a great place for an artist in those days because of all the wealth from commerce and commissions. At a glance, this painting (oil on panel, 4' x 6') appears to be a descriptive genre scene. On display is an array of meat products - a side of a hog, chickens, sausages, a stuffed intestine, pig's feet, meat pies, a cow's head, a hog's head and hanging entrails. Also visible are fish, pretzels, cheese and butter.
Like other artists of his time, Massys for example, Aertsen embedded strategically placed religious images as reminders to the viewer. In the background, "Joseph" leads a donkey carrying "Mary and the Christ Child" (photo above is cropped on the left to exclude this) The Holy Family stops to offer alms to a beggar and his son, while the people behind the Holy Family wend their way toward a church. Furthermore, the crossed fishes on the platter and the pretzels and wine in the rafters on the upper left all refer to "spiritual food" (pretzels often served as bread during Lent) Aertsen accentuated these allusions to salvation through Christ by contrasting them to their opposite - a life of gluttony, lust, and sloth. He represented this degeneracy with the "oyster and mussel shells" (believed by Netherlanders to possess aphrodisiacal properties) scattered on the ground on the painting's right side, along with the people seen eating and carousing nearby under the roof.
Where would you hang a picture like this? Now it is obviously in a collection in a museum of a major university for study but who commissioned it and why? Was it a rich merchant wanting to impress his clientele? And, if the priest dropped over he could point out all the religious allegorical symbolism as a conversation piece. Would they display it near or over the dining room table? I suppose, back then, it didn't bother folks to be reminded of the actual animals as they ate their prime cuts of "boef", "veal", "porke". It didn't seem "sinful" or crude to look into the eyes of those innocent creatures and lick your chops. As Anthony Bourdaine says, "If you are dumber than me and slower than me, then you are "in" me." Isn't it interesting that the seafood, i.e. oysters, clams, mussels were considered "bad" for you (tempting you into sex) where they actually are better for you than "red or fatty meats"? I wonder what they would've thought about "tofurkey", "veggie burgers"?
Don't get me wrong. I'm a firm believer in consuming protein in many different forms. Our species wouldn't be here if we didn't have some pretty dedicated wolly mammoth hunters. Our skills at obtaining "protein" have progressed a bit since then and scientifically we have found out that we don't need as high a percentage of our diet to be "meat"...like how often did they get to put mammoth "prime rib" on the blue plate special? Hunters and gatherers were mostly scroungers.
I'm just wondering why this "masterpiece" of "art" made it into my History of Art Text over all the other possible candidates of the time. Could it be that it was "one of a kind" for the time/era? After all, so many artist back then, Renaissance to Baroque Periods were imagining "demons and hellish monsters devouring us, bodily in hell...according to the clergy of the time that it wasn't that unusual to create a "Still Life" of what they were forced to eat. It was not unlike "Survivor Fiji" recently when they had to eat such delicasies as "pig snout" with the hairs still attached....anything to win an immunity challenge.
It is commendable that it was a "still life". Moving meat, on the hoof, so to speak, would be much more difficult to paint, let alone capture don't you think?...especially with a pallet and paint brush in your hands. Bob!