by Mark Calderwood
Pieter Aertsen’s The Meat Stall is a full-tilt assault on the senses. To keep your eyes on the painting is to feel, practically to smell the glutinous, raw flesh as much as seeing it. But this jarring impact has a purpose: to shock and disorientate viewers, forcing them to look deeper into the painting to discover clues to its real meaning. This visceral connection is no less felt by modern audiences that the original viewers- but far removed from its place and time, those clues, and therefore that meaning, are lost…a common hazard looking at early modern art.
In recent years, renaissance art works have become once again ‘acceptable’ objects to enjoy and study. But rather than ceding hard-won ground to the odious political imperatives of the canon or subjective connoisseurship, emphasis has been placed on the contextual readings that arise from the work’s creation and reception in its original historical-cultural milieu. This is resonance, the recognition that artworks are social objects, intimately connected to people and histories, and emerging from a specific cultural background that connects- or resists connection- with our own contemporary cultural furniture. This premise allows early modern works to be recast as contemporary art. Accreted meanings and the distances of history are consciously stripped away, rendering a work from the fifteenth century as open to interpretation and ascription as a work created in the twenty-first. A contemporary audience may thus re-experience a now-venerable work as if new, by imaginatively re-entering a time when that work was the cutting edge of what was (then) contemporary. And when reconsidered from within the context of its time, renaissance works can yield startling revelations.
Nowhere is this more marked than The Meat Stall. Art historians usually grant it hallowed status as ‘inventing’ several genres: market scenes, inverted morality pictures, encomia, and still life in general. Yet in 1551, the year it was painted- those concepts simply did not exist, and its original viewers, the respectable citizens of Antwerp, would respond according to its immediate visual language. The discomforting synaesthesia of raw, glutinous chunks of meat, unprecedented in Flemish painting but here depicted with such unsettling realism, is the first thing to induce shock and disorientation in its audience- and once off balance, the jumbled semiotic scheme denies them a unified reading of the image. Viewers are forced to put together a visual puzzle to find the meaning.
The painting itself is also clue. In an era when art was valued for to the subtlety of its dialogue with convention, The Meat Stall’s jarring disruption defies and satirises the predictable, elitist nature of art. The fragmented image reinforces the unsettling sense that something is fractured in staid, bourgeois Flemish society.
Looking past the dismembered carcasses and the bull’s head that fixedly stares back, the stall itself looks out not across the market lane but surreally onto an allegorical country scene- as it turns out, a ‘Biblical’ scene depicting the Holy Family giving alms on the Flight into Egypt. Seated on her donkey, the Virgin offers her bread to a boy and his father on the road- a modest act of Christian charity literally dwarfed by the rich foods for sale, eternal food for the soul in stark contrast to temporal food for the flesh. Aertsen’s unprecedented inversion of scale and importance, giving prominence to a mundanity and relegating the traditionally elevated religious art to the background, clearly signals another inversion between the secular and sacred.
The middle-ground figure to the right of the Holy Family reveals exactly how topical these signs of fractured nature are, and how closely tied to local knowledge. Alone in the arch formed by the stall, the youth dressed in the same red as the flensed head, is unambiguously framed as the key to the composition. That red jacket and knife block at his belt would be instantly recognisable to anyone in the city as the badge the Vleeschouwers Ambacht, Antwerp’s prestigious butcher’s guild…also a prominent property owner and a powerful force in the city’s economy.
But rather than being shown proudly at his trade, he is shown beneath a small, hurriedly written sign above the stall advertising a certain parcel of land for sale. In October of that year the Vleeschouwers forcibly acquired this land from the Sisters of St Elizabeth Gasthuis, the city’s most respected charitable foundation. Bought for a pittance, this land was resold to an urban developer at enormous profit just three weeks later. The shady real estate deal beggared the Gasthuis Sisters, and outraged the people of Antwerp: in this light, the tiny scene of Christian charity dwarfed by the luxurious fleshly display becomes a bitter moral coda.
Aertsen dated his painting very specifically, marking its appearance less than five months after the Gasthuis deed: the scandal would be still fresh in the minds of Antwerp’s citizens. When viewed with this inside knowledge, it is revealed that The Meat Stall would be seen by its original audience as forceful and topical painting, responding quickly to current events with angry comment and protest- exactly as contemporary art might.