This is one of Pieter Brueghel II's rarest compositions. Klaus Ertz, in his 2000 catalogue raisonné of the artist's works (op. cit.), records only four autograph versions (including this picture) and one further of doubtful attribution. He notes at the same time that Marlier's reattribution of those versions to Pieter Brueghel III (after a lost work by Pieter II, a reassessment followed in the 1995 sale) was not only erroneous, all four examples being fully characteristic of Pieter II's style, but also groundless as - in the absence of any picture securely attributed to him - Pieter III's hand is effectively unknown.
The subject recurs in a number of different paintings in early Flemish art: a particularly famous depiction is Pieter Aertsen's oil of 1552 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, but other examples are known including the earliest, two paintings of nearly identical composition depicting The Fight between Carnival and Lent from the circle of Hieronymus Bosch in the Museum Het Catharijneconvent, Utrecht (on loan from the Rijksmuseum), and in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp. Brueghel's composition, however derives from a composition by Cornelis Massys, engraved by Frans Huys (published by H.J. Raup, Bauernsatiren, Entstehung und Entwicklung des bäuerlichen Genres in der deutschen und niederländischen Kunst ca.1470-1570, Niederzier, 1986, p. 213, fig. 194a), although the background is of Pieter's own invention.
Brueghel's background is interesting, placing as it does the scene in a context familiar from other compositions within the artist's oeuvre, the kermesse. In the far background, the procession carrying the Host returns to the church, the villagers kneeling as it passes, a scene found in various of Brueghel's depictions of the kermesse theme, for example the Saint George's kermesse or The return from the kermesse. In the middle ground, peasants dance to a bagpipe player whilst near them, a man drunkenly gropes a woman, whilst another woman leads her inebriated husband home - a couple depicted as the main subject in the painting in the Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, and for which there is a drawing in the Kupferstichkabinett, Städelsches Kunstmuseum, Frankfurt.
Klaus Ertz has suggested that the juxtaposition of those contrasting motifs suggest a very slight moral running through the painting. It is almost always the case with Pieter II that the moralising undertones that permeate the art of his father, Pieter Bruegel I, are only discreetly (if ever) translated into the son's works. However Dr. Ertz may well be right in linking those motifs with the presence of the man in monastic clothes holding a pewter flagon of wine, juxtaposed with the woman and man pointing at the eucharistic bread by the glass. Given the tradition of the egg as a representation of the incarnation of Christ and the redemption of man, it may be that there is a veiled reference to the virtuous path in life leading to salvation, contrasted with the dangers implicit in the middle and foreground scenes. In that context, the motif of the woman dancing around the fragile egg assumes an obvious significance, albeit one that is largely hidden beneath the more evident rustic scene.
Sold with a copy of a certificate by Dr. Klaus Ertz, dated 3 May 2007, confirming the attribution to Pieter Brueghel II.