The Portland Combat between Carnival and Lent was first documented in 1831 but it has always remained unknown, both in the original and in reproduction, to scholars of the artist. While Fairfax Murray (1894) and Goulding (1934), both compilers of picture inventories at Welbeck, considered it to be by (or possibly by) Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dr. Waagen already in 1857 had correctly attributed the picture to Brueghel the Younger ('A rich composition in his broad comic vein'). The prototype of 1559, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) is one of the artist's undisputed masterpieces and one of the most recognisable of all images within the Brueghelian canon. Only five versions of the composition by the artist's son are known, of which, until now, only the pictures in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, and the version on canvas, sold in these Rooms (7 December 2006, lot 31, for £3.25 million) have been considered fully autograph. The re-appearance of the present work, albeit in somewhat neglected condition, thus marks a major addition to the oeuvre of Pieter Brueghel the Younger as one of the finest and rarest re-interpretations of his father's work.
The finesse of the execution, the richness of detail, and the spirited characterisation of the figures in the Portland version point to an early dating. Since none of the other versions are securely signed or dated it is difficult to establish an exact chronology for them, however, in this instance a dendrochronological examination of the panel has given an unusually clear indication of its likely date. The panel is made up of five Baltic oak planks the latest of which was taken from a tree still growing in 1583 (the date of the last heartwood ring), and probably felled shortly after circa 1591. Allowing for transport, manufacture and preparation of the panel, this would allow for usage from around 1600 onwards. Of greater significance, it has been possible, by cross-referencing this data with other panels used by the artist, to establish with near certainty that two of the planks used in in this panel were taken from the same tree as planks used in two other works by Pieter Breughel the Younger - a Christ on the Road to Calvary in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, and the version of the Combat between Carnival and Lent in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. The former is signed and dated 1603, suggesting a similar date for both this and the Brussels version of the Combat between Carnival and Lent. We are grateful to Ian Tyres for producing this dendrochronological report, no. 389, October 2010 (available for inspection on request).
The Combat between Carnival and Lent shows an extraordinarily encyclopaedic overview of folkloric Flemish customs around the central clash between the two opposing liturgical seasons - Carnival on the left and Lent on the right. Carnival was the season of sensual indulgence - of eating, drinking and merrymaking before the onset of Lenten fasting and penitence. Carnival is here shown riding a beer barrel, brandishing a roasting spit as a lance and using cooking pots for stirrups. He is followed by a crowd of revellers making their way from their natural habitat of the tavern. His adversary Lent is personified as a nun brandishing a baker's peel. The beehive she wears (a symbol of the Catholic Church) is decorated with a pretzel, a typically plain Lenten food. She offers two meagre herrings; inexpensive fish provided a staple diet during Lent when the eating of meat and other delicacies was forbidden. Her home is the church and she is followed by an entourage who perform acts of penitence and charity.
The well in the centre divides the painting along culinary lines: the pig of the Carnival emerges on the left, while Lenten fish are sold at the right. Among Carnival's followers, 'Rough Music' is played on a kitchen grill and a rommelpot, a jug beaten with a spoon and covered by leather to amplify the sound. The disguises of several Carnival Mummers are also taken from the kitchen: a necklace of eggs, and a kettle-helmet. Nearby, a woman bakes waffles over a wood fire. Waffles were Carnival specialities forbidden after Lent had begun. In the lower left corner, gamblers play dice, dressed in disguise according to Carnival fashion. The man hooded in waffles is probably a waffle baker. At this time bakers would take to the street, wagering their waffles against all comers. His opponent in black is dressed as one of the 'Carnival devils'. The child at the lower left wears a paper crown as his Carnival costume. These were fashioned from popular woodcuts, made to celebrate the Epiphany ('Three Kings Night') and were both inexpensive and widely circulated. Only a few have survived.
In the tavern on the left people are watching a performance of 'The Dirty Bride', a farce mocking the love of an unappealing rustic couple. In front of the second tavern beyond, actors perform one of the popular plays about wild men, perhaps the well-known 'Orson and Valentine'. On a barrel around the corner, a man drinks heartily to the delight of surrounding children, who cry 'The king drinks!'. The man emerging from the second-storey window above empties a bucket of slops on top of him. Nearer the foreground cripples wearing fox-tails as marks of their presumed deceitfulness perform their grotesque dance for alms during the Carnival time.
In the centre of the painting a fool crosses the city square carrying a torch. In Brueghel's time, torches lit in daylight were used to symbolise the folly of the Carnival: 'Bringing daylight out into the sun', for example, was a proverb illustrated by both Brueghel the Younger and his father.
On the Lenten side to the right, a sermon has ended in the church, and the congregation departs. Several devout women, probably Beguines, emerge through the front portal. They have attended a Lenten service (the statues are covered within the church), but lack the ashen crosses on their foreheads, found in Bruegel the Elder's paintings, which identifies the day as Ash Wednesday. From the north portal a second audience departs. They have celebrated Palm Sunday and hold in commemoration small branches, palms being hard to obtain in the Netherlands. Theirs is a modest congregation, for several of them carry their own chairs. Sickness and death are ever-present, invoking Lenten charity. Cripples and orphans are given alms, as is a mother whose husband's corpse occupies the lower right corner of the painting.
The exact meaning of Brueghel's subject has given rise to various different interpretations, including the possibility that the picture was actually meant to illustrate a general conflict between the Church and State, or as a more specific battle between Luther and the Church (see K. Demus, in the catalogue of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1981). Ertz is less convinced by this political reading of the picture favouring the more conventional notion, first voiced by Bastelaer, that Brueghel was really providing a humorous overview of rural life during Carnival and Lent in a didactic and allegorical way (R. von Bastelaer, Les estampes de Pieter Brueghel l'ancien, Brussels, 1908). It seems likely that such mock jousts were actually enacted on Shrove Tuesday before the Lenten fast began and many of the other rituals and customs associated with the seasons are here visualised in this way.