Absurdity in the Middle Ages

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30-1569)

In 16th century thought the Theatrum Mundi paintings (1559-60) or The Great Theatre of the World derived from Classical antiquity was an idea that seemed to provide the inspiration for much of Pieter Bruegel’s paintings. Although in looking at his work, a much more modern theatrical label comes to my mind and that is “theatre of the absurd.” The art critic who said that Bruegel’s painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559) contained “The concept of a world of absurd happenings spread out before the spectator as though on a stage” seems to agree with us.

On the left half of Carnival and Lent we see people in a Medieval village engaged in behaviors that the Church would not approve of and on the right half are depicted the behaviors of the at least outwardly pious “believers.” In the worldview that contains all of these people most are secure in the belief that life makes sense i.e. “God is in His heaven and all is right with the world.” The church was responsible for education such as it was and, of course, medieval peasants had little reason or opportunity to doubt what they were taught. Artists who created the art displayed in the churches were playing an educational role.

As noted elsewhere in this book, as early as 1563, the Council of Trent made it clear that the Church felt the purpose of religious images was both to instruct and to involve the laity emotionally. A painter like Bruegel, however, with cynicism and humor was able to expose the hypocrisy and ignorance of the Church and the townspeople. The behavior of the peasants was crude and ugly as they sought to gratify sensual desires on the human stage where the false self was the “star.”

Viewing this series of paintings in Bruegel’s time, one would not have held out much hope for the future of humanity—at least in Europe. And although much has changed in the last 400 years in human accomplishment, the future is at least as bleak now as it was then. Technological and intellectual attainments in the outer world have not freed humanity from the hypnotic state of unconsciousness. Still hypnotized by religion and controlled by strivings for sensual pleasure, material gain and the use of power to manipulate others, little has changed except the outer trappings of form.

There has been very little increase in self-knowledge—in awareness of humanity’s inner world—no true transformational progress has been made. The Church that controlled both the secular and religious life of people in Bruegel’s time has failed miserably in its mission to save the soul of humanity. Religion remains more a source of human suffering than a source of human comfort. It is more of an obstacle to human enlightenment than a source of support for human transformation.

The painting Children’s Games (1560) speaks to us of the immaturity of human behavior attributable to unconsciousness. “An anonymous poem published in Antwerp in 1530 had compared humanity with children who run and jump and fool around.”  The ineffective problem-solving strategies of modern human communities are as if they can do no more than “fool around” like immature children. In fact, the failure of modern leaders to deal with the darker aspect of the human condition is due to unconsciousness—as severe today as it was 400 years ago. In the painting “two children are turning upside down on a bench, suggesting a topsy-turvy world where foolishness is rampant.”  Only a foolish human community would persist in would-be solutions that addressed only symptoms while ignoring the true causes.

In the same painting a “large mask displayed at the upper window suggests ‘playing at masks,’ but also represents the tragedy or folly of life itself.”  Masks can also be symbolic of human personas which suggest that humankind is unable to identify with a profound and healthy identity. In short, today as was true in the Middle Ages, we do not know who we are. We continue to display our masks as we seek to gratify the ego’s need for security, sensation and power. Allowing the ego to dominate the world stage and continue playing its childish games spells disaster for humanity reminiscent of the Dark Ages plagues. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are about to gallop onto the human scene commanding the central roles that they played in the darkest scripts of human history.

Bruegel also had something to say, consciously or unconsciously in his art about the paternalism of Medieval times. Writers in the 16th century also spoke out in the literary tradition “which saw marriage as foolish because it permitted lust and meant that woman would eventually be dominated by man.”

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

 

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