Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Art Analysis

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

“A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms” is an oil painting done by Pieter Aertsen in 1551. Pieter Aertsen is known for creating life-size market scenes that have exuberant still life features. Aertsen uses various small images placed throughout the painting to depict several prominent social changes taking place in Antwerp, and to warn against excess wealth and greed.

The painting is a shocking image of freshly butchered meat that may cause some viewers to fall back and look in disgust at the work of art. At the foreground of this butchered meat is a partially skinned ox head which seems to stare at the viewer no matter how they look at the painting. Surrounding the ox head is a plethora of other meats such as pig’s feet, fish, sausage, and the list goes on and on. Furthermore the painting also depicts a small image of the Flight to Egypt in the background, as well as, a tavern seen on the right side of the panel.

Now with a small description on the painting it’s time to figure out why Aertsen chose to depict the butchered meat as the foreground of this image and why the image of Flight to Egypt is such a minute portion of the piece. Aertsen was living in the economically booming city of Antwerp at the time in which he created this image, so naturally this must have play a role in some of the artistic decisions he chose to make. Meat, for example, was a huge industry within the city at the time. The Butcher’s Guild in Antwerp was an extremely powerful institution that had a large grasp over the local politics in the area. The city could only have sixty-two officially recognized butchers and this position was highly esteemed and typically only handed down the next of kin. All meat had to be bought from the Vleeshuis, or “Meat Hall,” which was a massive building located on the River Scheldt, truly showing the overall power of the guild. So with just the inclusion of meat in his painting, Aertson shows just how powerful the Butcher’s Guild and meat industry of Antwerp were during his time.

Sign (detail), Pieter Aertsen, 
A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms
Along with the inclusion of meat within photo is the small sign located in the upper right hand corner of the image. The sign is written in Dutch but can be translated to “Land for sale out back: 154 rods, either by the piece or all at once.” This sign refers to an actual event that took place in 1551. Simply put, the city of Antwerp decided to develop the southeastern portion of the city, but land was hard to come by so the city council forced the nuns who ran St. Elisabeth’s hospital to sell their land at a tremendous loss. The rest of the city did not agree, especially after surplus land was sold to a wealthy real estate developer, and thus riots ensued. Violence had to be stopped by imperial troops at one point. This small wooden sign relays are big message to the viewer about how Aertsen and others viewed the social changes that were rapidly overtaking the city. This sign is also one of the only details to appear on all four versions of Aertsen’s painting, so it must be a fairly large issue for the artist and one that he wishes to get across to his viewer.

Two hands—symbol of Antwerp (detail), Pieter Aertsen
, A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms
The painting truly shows Aertsen’s craftsmanship and originality, but along with this are several strategically placed images that express his overall concern of the local politics surrounding the city of Antwerp. One such image is found in the upper left-hand corner. The image is a small illustration of two hands, the symbol of Antwerp. Along with the hands are small chalk drawings that were typically noted to belong to specific individuals within the guilds of Antwerp. However, the individuals that these specific marks represent is unknown and continues to remain a mystery. Though the images are subtle they allow the viewer to understand that Aertsen is trying to show to wealth and power that he guilds within Antwerp possess. These guild images and symbols also used to show the political unrest and tangled politics that were plaguing Antwerp at the time that Pieter Aertsen created this image.


Tavern scene (detail), Pieter Aertsen, 
A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms
On the right side of the image is a small tavern scene that depicts several people sitting around a fire. In the room is another butchered animal carcass and a butcher, who can be recognized by his red coat that only butchers within Antwerp were able to wear this symbol of being a guild member. The scene shows the guild member adding water to wine that is severing his guests. This portion of the painting doesn’t seem to offer nearly as much insight to time period in which Aertsen created this piece, but it does show that guild members were often criticized as being more concerned with the finer things in life rather than focusing on the betterment of the city of Antwerp as a whole. This continues to add to overall fact that Aertsen includes several subtle images that continue to add to the criticism of the political unrest caused by the guilds of Antwerp

Flight into Egypt (detail), Pieter Aertsen, 
A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms
Alongside images of political unrest is the small religious scene located in the background of the piece. This still life scene of some form of religious image is much more characteristic of Aertsen’s style. The scene depicts the Flight into Egypt including Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus. The previously mentioned images of meat also seem to play a role in the religious aspects of the paintings as well. Located right in the center of the painting are two fish which seem to either be in the formation of a cross or an arrow which is pointing at the scene of the Flight to Egypt. Fish, in particular, was associated with Lent, a period in which those who considered themselves faithful withheld from eating meat of any kind. This is interesting given the rest of the painting seeming to involve meat in some form or fashion. Similarly to the other depictions of meat this one shows meat as a negative aspect that is causing political issues within the city of Antwerp.

Pieter Aertsen is an artist who typically paints still life scenes of markets and other types of religious content. However, in the analysis the painting being focused on is “A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms”. In this scene Aertsen depicts a moderately gruesome image of freshly butchered meat that is the main image that is in reference to the power of the might Meat Guild in Antwerp, but also in reference to the overall political unrest that the city was also rapidly experiencing. Aertsen is able to lay out the social issues in this piece with several small images and scenes placed throughout the overall image. These include signs, symbols, and religious scenes that relate back to the city of Antwerp and its troubling political issues that were plaguing the city during Aertsen’s time.

Works Cited


Houghton, Charlotte. “This Was Tomorrow: Pieter Aertsen's "meat Stall" as Contemporary Art”. The Art Bulletin 86.2 (2004): 277–300. Web...

Marx, Daniel. "Butcher's Stall by AERTSEN, Pieter." Butcher's Stall by AERTSEN, Pieter. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Meagher, Jennifer. "Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History." Food and Drink in European Painting, 1 1400–1800. 1 May 2009. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.

Pioch, Nicolas. "Aertsen, Pieter." WebMuseum:. 14 Oct. 2002. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.

Schaudies, Irene. "Khan Academy." Khan Academy. 1 June 2004. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

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