1551; Oil on wood panel, 123.3 x 150 cm (48.5 x 59"); University Art Collections, Uppsala University, Sweden
A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms
1551; Oil on panel, 115.5 x 169.0 cm; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC, USA
In the 16th and 17th centuries it was quite common for theologians to see a slaughtered animal as symbolizing the death of a believer. Allusions to the 'weak flesh' (cf. Matthew 16:41) may well have been associated with Aertsen's Butcher's Stall where - like on his fruit and vegetable stalls - a seemingly infinite abundance of meat has been spread out.
In the foreground tables, pots, plates, a barrel, some wickerwork chairs and baskets serve as supports and containers for huge hunks of meat, pig's trotters, soups, chains of sausages hanging down and freshly slaughtered poultry. In the background there is an open, shingle-roofed studded stable with a pole from which further pieces of meat are suspended, including a pig's head, a twisted sausage and some lard. Through the stable we can see a garden scene. On the right, in the middle ground, a farmer is filling a large jug, and behind him we can see a slaughtered and gutted pig, a motif which Beuckelaer also used as an independent motif, as did Rembrandt later (where the animal is a slaughtered ox).
Pieter Aertsen is remembered today mainly as a pioneer of still lifes, but he seems to have first painted such pictures as a sideline, until he saw many of his altarpieces destroyed by iconoclasts. This painting, done a few years before he moved from Antwerp to Amsterdam, seems at first glance to be an essentially secular picture. The tiny, distant figures are almost blotted out by the avalanche of edibles in the foreground. We see little interest here in selection or formal arrangement. The objects, piled in heaps or strung from poles, are meant to overwhelm us with their sensuous reality (the panel is nearly lifesize). Here the still life so dominates the picture that it seems independant of the religious subject. The latter, however, is not merely a pretext to justify the painting; it must be integral to the meaning of the scene. In the background to the left we see the Virgin on the Flight into Egypt dispensing charity to the faithful lined up for church, while to the right is the prodigal son in a tavern. The Northern Mannerists often relegated subject matter to a minor position within their compositions.
Pieter Aertsen was one of the first artists to paint "inverted still lifes," works in which the still-life elements are placed prominently in the foreground, while the narrative elements are relegated to the background. The Butcher's Stall is Aertsen's masterpiece in this genre. A feast for the mind as well as the eyes, this remarkably executed painting abounds with rich symbolism. The juxtaposition of the precisely rendered meats and other foods with the Holy Family in the background symbolically links food for the body with the spiritual "bread of life"- food for the soul, represented by the Christ child and the bread, offered by Mary to the poor family. In presenting a visual metaphor that encourages the viewer to consider his spiritual life, this work also anticipates the symbolic religious meanings present in seventeenth-century Dutch vanitas still lifes. Aertsen's Meat Stall was clearly a famous work in its own day, judging from the number of contemporary versions that exist. In both style and subject matter, the Butcher's Stall is the direct antecedent of the impressive Market Scene on a Quay by Frans Snyders.
This "inverted" perspective was a favorite device of Aertsen's younger contemporary, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who treated it with mocking intent in his landscapes. Aertsen belonged to the same ironic tradition, reaching back to the Gothic era, whose greatest representative was the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. The Butcher's Stall may be an elaborate satire on the gluttony of peasants, a favorite subject of Bruegel. Not until around 1600 was this vision replaced as part of a larger change in world view. Only then did it no longer prove necessary to include religious or historical scenes in still lifes and landscapes.