This Was Tomorrow: Pieter Aertsen's Meat Stall as Contemporary Art
Houghton, Charlotte, The Art Bulletin
How can the individual work, which positivistic . . . history has determined in a chronological series and thereby reduced to the status of a "fact," be brought back into its historical-sequential relationship and thereby once again be understood as an "event"?-Hans Robert Jauss1
Art history books are filled with images that were novel in their day, and one perennial activity of scholarship has been to describe what constituted the new in a given image or era. Newness described, however, is not newness experienced. How can we reenter imaginatively the mental frame in which an old master painting was the latest salvo of contemporary art? The attempt to re-create an image's original viewing context through historical research can provide crucial information but must inevitably be incomplete. To catch a glimpse of what a now-venerable work looked like on its first day requires both a willful forgetting of what came next and a conscious letting go of the search for definitive answers. One great pleasure of confronting contemporary art is the awareness that the work is not yet burdened by consensus-its present is fluid, its future unknown, its implications still unformed. It is not clear which elements "mean" and which do not; everything (potentially) signifies. Each viewer faces the contemporary artifact alone, without a safety net, intrigued or offended or exhilarated according to individual predisposition and tolerance for the uncircumscribed. In approaching a contemporary picture, few would question that the effort necessary to construct meaning from it is part of the pleasure of experiencing it. The task I set myself as a historian is to render the interpretative limits of artwork of the past similarly unpredictable-to return to an old chestnut something of its original capacity to startle.
In this article, I undertake to convey the sense of newness, of sixteenth-century contemporaneity, that informed the reception of Pieter Aertsen's Meal Stall, painted in Antwerp in 1551 (Fig. 1).2 In this image, Aertsen turned a millennium of artistic convention inside out by bringing objects forward to dominate human actors: the picture's vivid display of freshly butchered meat (a subject unthinkable previously in panel painting) all but obscures a tiny background scene of the Flight into Egypt (Fig. 2), and the largest person on view is smaller than a sausage. Art historians have granted The Meal Stall canonical status as the initiating work in not just one but several genres: market paintings, "inverted" morality pictures, paradoxical encomiums, and-ultimately-the entire field of modern still life, in which role it enjoys a half page (color) in H. W. Janson's History of Art.3 This notoriety, however, carries disadvantages. The image is complimented as originary but tamed. Indeed, it is impossible for a specialist to approach The Meal Stall today without an awareness of its niche in the tradition and the formal trajectories that proceed from it. As a consequence, it is routinely treated as the first installment in one or another artistic genealogy.4 But, like the rogue outsider at the head of many a now-distinguished family tree, The Meat Stall has a story far more colorful than that of its offspring. Accordingly, I will consider this picture when it was-emphatically-alone of its kind.
Aertsen's painting has generated many (often conflicting) art historical interpretations. Some have contended that its subject matter is resolutely secular, while others have read in it a sacred, indeed, Eucharistie message.5 While many have argued that its tone is moralizing, a few have described it as unabashedly festive, even Rabelaisian.6 Scholars have found sources for its imagery in authors as diverse as Pliny, Desiderius Erasmus, Saint Augustine, Martial, Juvenal, and Saint Luke.7 One reason that The Meat Stall can support such varying interpretations may be the total absence of surviving documentation concerning its original function or meaning. No records have come to light concerning its patronage. No inventories or eyewitness accounts offer the slightest clue about its initial location. On the other hand, visual evidence attests to the painting's immediate success: at least four virtually identical versions are extant, located today in Raleigh, North Carolina (Fig. 1), Uppsala (Fig. 3), Amsterdam (Fig. 4), and Maastricht (Fig. 5).8 While comparative scientific analysis may one day further clarify their relationship, visual examination indicates a similarity of facture suggesting nearcontemporaneous production for at least three.9 The Meat Stall thus appears to have generated additional orders for Aertsen; in any case, it coincided with a turning point in his career. When he painted it, Aertsen was over forty and had been a guild member for sixteen years.10 Yet only four works can be securely situated in his oeuvre before The Meat Stall while close to fifty are recorded or extant from alter it.11
The Meat Stall represented more than a new initiative in Aertsen's career; it was a radical departure in art making altogether. In an era when an artwork's valuation often hinged on the subtlety of its dialogue with convention, The Meat Stall's reception was predicated instead on the way it broke the rules, confounded expectation, even irreverently thumbed its nose at social and artistic pieties. At a time when artworks fulfilled a relatively definable array of functions, this picture correlated comfortably with none of them. For a work of its importance (a large-scale panel painting), its reference system appears singularly and explicitly topical. I will explore each of these facets of The Meat Stall in historical context below.
Historical analysis, however, is an extended, painstaking, and primarily verbal process. Its incremental nature is inadequate to my primary purpose: to convey a visceral experience of The Meat Stall's sixteenth-century impact. My strategy, therefore, is to disrupt the models that ordinarily structure its viewing and substitute for them one that can lend more immediate insight into how The Meat Stall affected its first audience in 1551. To accomplish this, I will employ as an analogue an aggressively novel work from a very different era: Richard Hamilton's Pop icon, just What Is It That Makes Today 's Homes So Different, So Appealing? (Fig. 6).12 I will argue below that The Meat Stall, much like Hamilton's collage, combined formal transgression with radical displacement of polite subject matter to satirize the prevailing condition of elite art production. Like the later collage, Aertsen's image made liberal use of topical reference to evoke the disconcerting pace of change in its society. Like Hamilton's picture, The Meat Stall is structured, through a profusion of oddly juxtaposed objects and an ironic tone, deliberately to frustrate unitary reading. To understand these aspects of Aertsen's image, however, requires a level of cultural and social competence concerning Antwerp in 1551 comparable to the knowledge of twentieth-century England and North America that informed reception of Hamilton's collage. Such competence is thickly layered, as a look at Hamilton's work will demonstrate.
Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? was created for the poster and catalogue that accompanied This Is Tomorrow, an exhibition of mixed-media artwork held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in August and September of 1956.13 Initially regarded by some as a "flaunting of the coarsest, most despicable aspects of American-influenced culture, the very antithesis of fine art,"14 by 1989 it had assumed its own honored position in Janson as the inaugurating work of Pop art.15 Future catalogues of the canon will routinely cite the importance of Hamilton's achievement. But how much of this collage's impact will remain perceptible when the cultural valence of its subject matter is lost and when the preoccupations it responded to no longer matter? Hamilton's image drew on sophisticated-yet highly contingent-realms of knowledge. His audience knew that the Ford emblem belonged on cars, not lampshades; that Young Romance was a comic book cover, not an artwork suitable for enlargement or framing; and that the display of these things in this fashion was a deliberate artistic malapropism. Hamilton's viewers understood that the Tootsie Roll Pop and the comment "ordinary cleaners reach only this far" slyly evoked Freudian psychology. They lived with an accelerating technology that put television in their living rooms and made The Jazz Singer of 1927, on the movie marquee outside, already an anachronism. These accretive subject matters coexisted in the image without direct or sequential relationship-Hamilton himself called his composition "tabular"-yet their juxtaposition revealed them as interconnected strands of a larger semiotic web.16
The Hamilton collage was equally and inseparably innovative in its form. Its disjointed and miscellaneous assembly of mass-produced magazine advertising cutouts mocked the personal signature gesture (the raw contact of psyche and canvas) that defined high art in 1956. Indeed, the only seemingly gestural imagery in it appears (as Jackson Pollock's drip paintings began) on the ground-but here only as a floor covering to be trampled on.17 Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? thus proposed an impudent alternative to angst-ridden American Abstract Expressionism. London art viewers recognized that this diminutive collage both illuminated the condition of consumer capitalism and challenged the dominant discourse of Western art.18
If an image's significations, however, are thoroughly embedded in its immediate cultural milieu and moment, what happens to it as a work of art as its resonances fade? What critical mass of cultural knowledge enables just What Is It. . . . to work at all? To look at Hamilton's collage from a distance of forty-eight years is already to sense the world's-and one's own-grasp of its allusions faltering. Yet in this early stage of obsolescence, its qualities of radical modernity and surprise remain accessible.
As I discuss individual aspects of Aertsen's work below, I ask the reader to borrow the viewing mode in which Hamilton's collage makes sense and approach The Meat Stall with it. Take no component of the picture for granted. Allow its seemingly disconnected, even mismatched parts to coexist without forcing them into tidy resolution. Aertsen's image is filled with references to specific persons, events, and artworks, whose cultural resonances (as those in the collage) are densely matted. My narrative will address the picture's visual shock; its references to butchers, shady real estate deals, and local Antwerp figures; and its own intentional breaches of thenprevailing artistic practice. Throughout, I will attempt to show how these diverse subjects inform and illuminate each other. I must state at the outset, however, that my account will be fragmentary. I have tracked down some of The Meat Stall's many referents, but others have eluded me. Still, the implications of these individual elements are far-reaching and interconnected. Within The Meat Stall each carries something of the significance, for example, of Hamilton's Ford logo. An explication of his collage based largely on research into this one motif would necessarily be lopsided and incomplete, but it would also be revealing. It would touch (among other things) upon the centrality of the automobile in mid-twentieth century Western society; corporate strategics of yearly obsolescence propelling style change and increased revenues; the general speeding up of modern life; the imbrication of the petroleum industry in a global economy; and the infiltration of Europe by American brand-name goods. While none of these defines the collage's meaning, all nevertheless figure as implicit subject matters whose resonances, in turn, overlap with those of other elements in the image. Similarly, my discussion of individual motifs in Aertsen's picture will shed light on larger issues that informed its reception.
Moreover, as in Just What Is It. . . ., The Meat Stall's multiple semiotic units reside together in a manner that is anything but seamless. There is an additive quality to their arrangement (and to their treatment in this essay) that parallels Hamilton's "tabular" pictorial strategy. This compositional patchwork allowed for myriad possibilities of overall interpretation and placed the task of assembling meaning from The Meat Stall's disparate parts squarely on the viewer.19 Yet for those who opened themselves to the encounter, it offered wide-ranging and unexpected insights into many aspects of (then) modern life. In my discussion below, I will approach the picture in the order in which I suspect, for the sixteenth-century viewer, its surprises unfolded.
What first arrests attention in Aertsen's image is the meat. Great bloody hunks of it press outward from the picture plane, impinging on audience space with carcass parts and dripping viscera-a pig's body, cleaved in half and gutted; a marbled haunch; a lung strung up by a ragged windpipe. Just below, a freshly skinned ox head, looking chillingly alive, stares reproachfully at the viewer. The effect of abundant raw flesh is intensified by Aertsen's repeated use of red around the image: the painted post, the roof tiles and brick walls, the cloak on the bending figure's torso (itself eerily livershaped)-all conspire to heighten the presence of meat, even where it is absent. Aertsen portrayed the properties of the animal flesh itself in exquisite sensory detail: the translucence of tripe extruding slime; the soft, bluody muscle of a severed joint; the silken shimmer of cooling, just congealing animal fat, contrasted with the chalkiness of rendered suet.
It would seem that any account of The Meat Stall must first confront this emphatic subject matter-both the astonishing attention to its handling and its specific associations in historical context. Yet, curiously, scholars discussing the picture have tended to sidestep the "meatness" of this imaged" Rather than confront the insistent materiality to which Aertsen devoted so much of his time and skill, waters typically offer a minimal description of the overall scene, then quickly move into subtextual realms. In effect, they treat the entire visual aspect of the painting as mere allegorical veneer. The result has been to focus art historical analysis on hermeneutic transactions taking place offstage, outside the picture. I, too, will proceed soon enough to discuss associative material beyond the borders of the panel, but first it seems appropriate to honor its sensory level, which clearly was so important to the artist.
The Meat Stall is a synesthetic banquet that invokes not just vision but also taste, smell, and touch. To keep one's eyes on the picture is to feel one's skin implicated in the process as well, which may be why some viewers-professional as well as lay-are inclined so swiftly to look away. In savoring painting, it is one affair to submit oneself imaginatively to the tactile values of Gerard Terborch's satins and silks, to the velvety petals of Jan Brueghel's irises, or to the downy ermine that edges a van Eyck cloak. It is quite another to probe the surfaces of Aertsen's display-the rubbery furrows and protuberances of gelatinous guts and organs, the clamminess (or worse, lingering warmth) of freshly butchered meat. These are not sensations that are normally aestheticized, or on which viewers would ordinarily linger. The longer one dwells on them, the more discomforts they evoke, moving beyond the physical to the psychological-from that unblinking oxen eye, which seems to accuse the viewer (me, you) of complicity in its dismemberment, into an anthropomorphic territory of disturbing identification. It is far less threatening to study the memento mori in all manner of arcane languages than to be reminded, somatically, of the death of the flesh before one's eyes.
Admittedly, meat stuffs in this form and profusion would have been a familiar sight in sixteenth-century Antwerp, one of the northern epicenters of what nutritional historians call "carnivorous Europe" to describe a two-hundred-year period of highly elevated (and virtually universal) urban meat consumption.21 Forthright display of body parts was common practice in the stalls of early modern butchers, who placed heads, entrails, and trotters on open view, for purchase by consenting consumers.22 In the butchers' hall, such objects would be viewed without a second thought. It was neither this subject matter per se nor the frankness of its exhibition that would have shocked an audience in 1551. Rather, it was its utterly anomalous-indeed, unthinkable-locus: within a picture frame.
Before The Meat Stall, raw meat had never appeared in panel painting. To be sure, seasonal slaughtering received some attention in the calendar pages of missals and books of hours (Fig. 7),23 and the occasional secular manuscript illustrated butchers at work (Figs. 8, 9).24 In these images, however, meat in itself is of little interest to the artists. Schematic and reduced in scale, it appears merely as an occupational attribute. Until Aertsen's picture debuted in 1551, raw meat had not received even this cursory attention in panel painting, an elite medium devoted primarily to the human figure.25 Panel paintings of the size and quality of The Meat Stall were expensive objects commissioned by wealthy individuals or corporate bodies, either religious or secular. These high-end artworks usually depicted religious or historical scenes and portraits, although increasingly in the mid-sixteenth century they might also be vertiginous, imaginary world-landscape views or moral satires (of, for example, unequal lovers). Material objects in all these works appeared as props or attributes subordinate to human activity-and even then, raw meat was not among them.
For Aertsen's audience, therefore, the foregrounding of colossal butchered parts constituted a jarring artistic disconnect-a breach of propriety equivalent to that of Andy Warhoi's Campbell's Soup cans in 1962. In both cases, the objects at issue were mundane and inoffensive in themselves, but their sudden appropriation of the picture field within elite media proved disturbing. Today, of course, meat has appeared, famously, from the work of Rembrandt and the Carracci to that of Chaim Soutine, Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Hermann Nitsch. Each new representation, whether or not the artist consciously so intends, becomes a commentary on the tradition of meat's imaging and a paragone with important artists of the past. A long and distinguished line of artworks authorizes and naturalizes the subject matter.
In 1551, however, there was nothing to prepare Aertsen's audience for his exuberant, large-scale portrayal of meat in all its bloody materiality. Moreover, Aertsen's viewers had never seen an image that so relentlessly privileged things, while it so diminished the prominence of human figures. For all the subsequent art histories that have proclaimed The Meat Stall the first still life of modern times, this genre simply did not exist-was not a concept-in 1551, and this picture wasn't one.26
It is important to note, too, that because the picture was not a still life, the items in it retained their fullest specificity-in other words, they had not yet become generic "objects," a class of inanimate articles that would become the subject matter for a definable branch of painting. It was not "a meat picture." The resonances that Aertsen's meat evoked in his audience came not from the realm of art-as, for instance, Francis Bacon's Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef resonates at least as strongly with Rembrandt as with the packinghouse-but rather from other areas of life. And in 1551, one set of associations this image offered Aertsen's viewers was extremely topical. Meat was then at the center of a heated legal and economic contest, which, in turn, exemplified broader civic tensions. These social and political resonances therefore provided at least one starting point for the audience in parsing meaning from the picture.
In Antwerp in 1551, meat products could be obtained only through face-to-face negotiation with a member of the city's butchers' guild, the Vleeschouwers Ambacht. One of them appears at the right in Aertsen's image, wearing the red tunic and knife block that identified his trade.27 The Vleeschouwers Ambacht was one of the oldest and most respected of the city's organizations.28 Its wealth and status depended on three things: its monopoly on the sale of meat, its limited membership (by law, to only sixty-two butchers), and its unusually close relation to the Habsburg central government. The guild's exclusive right to sell meat in Antwerp had been granted by the dukes of Brabant before 1250,29 and their 1354 charter from Duke Jan III put this traditional monopoly in writing.30 It also extended to the butchers the extraordinary right to close their corporation, rendering membership strictly hereditary.31 The internal statute mandating this was couched in fitting terms: the trade passed literally "by the blood."32 Butcher wealth was thus concentrated within a small number of families that frequently intermarried.33 Land transfers attest to the affluent homes of butchers,34 many of whom amassed sizable pasture tracts in Oosterwacle, a low-lying area shielded by dikes just outside the city walls, along the Scheide River.35 The butchers' status was elevated, furthermore, because of their protection by the Habsburg court. While the operations of most guilds were subject to municipal oversight, the Vleeschouwers' charter made them liege to the dukes of Brabant, whose title, by 1551, had devolved on the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V of Spain.36
The Vleeschouwers' prominence in Antwerp was most palpable in their extraordinary hall, the Vleeshuis (Fig. 10). Opened in 1503 to meet the needs of a growing city, its four-plus-story height was accentuated by slender corner towers, while its footprint (154 by 69 feet) was five times that of the hall that preceded it.37 In hiring the region's most eminent architect, Herman de Waghemakere de Oude, the guild clearly aimed to construct a modern architectural landmark, one that could both confirm and advance its civic status.38 Until the new city hall was built in 1565, the Vleeshuis was Antwerp's largest and most magnificent secular building, an urban reference point second only to the Onze Lieve Vrouw Kerk (now the cathedral). In a 1515 city view (Fig. 11), it soars above the skyline (at center left).39 The hall, moreover, served a variety of populations. Its sumptuously appointed upper stories accommodated guild business and social functions.40 Because of its stylish interior and large wall areas, it was also for a half century a central space for Antwerp's international luxury trade in tapestries.41 Most importantly and publicly, it was the city's single venue for the sale of meat.
From 1503 to 1551, while Antwerp's population doubled to 100,000, the number of butchers' stalls remained fixed.42 The Vleeschouwers' connection to the emperor lent them prestige, and their modern hall advertised their success. With a closed membership feeding a rapidly increasing (and meathungry) population, the butchers might have anticipated a healthy share in Antwerp's growing prosperity. Instead, they encountered unexpected problems. Floods in 1530, 1542, and 1551 devastated their pastures, resulting in heavy imposts for reclamation and dike repair.43 In 1542, the city's massive rewalling project precipitated a new tax on meat, payable per head of livestock by the butcher, who was left to recoup it in the marketplace.44 The war declared between the Habsburg central government and France in 1551 only heightened anxiety and augured still higher taxes.
These problems were eclipsed, however, by another that escalated to a crisis in 1551: a direct attack on the Vleeschouwers' ancient monopoly on meat. For generations, meat sellers from outlying towns had agitated to penetrate the city's market.45 In the late 1540s, emboldened by Antwerp's growth, a group of these "outside butchers" (buitenbeenhouwers) organized to pursue their goals formally. In December 1549, they filed suit in city court to force an opening of the trade.46 For the Vleeschouwers, facing the threat of lower prices, reduced business, and the rendering of their ducal privileges and status virtually meaningless, this was a matter of commercial life or death. They vigorously contested the suit. After many months, they secured a favorable judgment from the city.47
But to the guild's chagrin, the affair did not end there. The outside butchers took an appeal to Charles V.48 At first glance this might seem a safe venue for the Vleeschouwers, who traded, after all, under ducal charter. As guild members were all too aware, however, the appeal increased their peril. Eighty years earlier a prior duke-Charles the Bold-had briefly allowed increased access for the buitenbeenhouwers in the city.49 Though this was reversed after just three years, the outside butchers in the current suit claimed this ducal initiative from 1469 as precedent. As it happened, rather than rule in the Vleeschouwers' favor, the current duke called for an official inquest into the matter, with a hearing in September 1551.50 Pieter Aertsen must have been acutely aware of the Vleeschouwers' plight, for his home and studio opened directly onto the Ossenmarkt, where the butchers traded their cattle.51 The guild's state of anxiety was destined to be protracted; litigation on the issue remained pending until 1554, leaving the corporation's future in limbo for years.52
The Vleeschouwers' most implacable adversary, however, was not a cartel of suburban meat cutters, nor even a potentially fickle ducal court. It was the deeper metamorphosis at work in Antwerp's urban economy. This raised their predicament from the particular to the emblematic.
In the decades following 1501, when the first Portuguese spice ships arrived in Antwerp from the Indies, the city had been rapidly transformed from a regional trading center to the leading northern port in global exchange-a hub especially of wool, spice, and metal traffic.53 By the 1540s, massive immigration in response to economic growth had led to a cycle of real estate and public works development-including a full set of new defensive walls-that drove land prices up sharply, yet benefited few.54 To finance its projects the city had to raise money by all available means or face bankruptcy.55 It sold municipal property, took enormous loans, and raised taxes.55 To make matters worse, the developer in charge of these projects, Gilbert van Schoonbeke, bargained with Habsburg authorities to run his own materials and supply industries outside the territory of Antwerp, and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of its trade guilds.57 These traditional bastions of craft production therefore suffered enormous urban tax burdens while being deprived of the direct economic benefits of growth.
Increasingly, the interests of individuals and groups with significant local investments, such as retail merchants and food producers (brewers, butchers, fat traders), diverged from those of financiers and international merchants.58 The Vleeschouwers marketed goods for local consumption, based in an agrarian economy. The meat and animal byproducts they produced were perishables, unfit for long-distance trade; they were not among the items bought low and sold high in international markets.59 Moreover, despite the butchers' sizable landholdings, the sixteenth-century speculative real estate boom in Antwerp passed them by. Besides being situated outside the city walls, their tracts in Oosterwaele were subject to frequent flooding, and therefore unsuitable for urban building.60 These, then, did not figure in the creation of wealth from metropolitan growth that made developers rich. Finally, the suit to break the Vleeschouwers' monopoly fit into a pattern of assaults on traditional guild prerogatives, which appeared to be ever more expendable within a system of shifting economic and social values. The very growth that once had promised the Vleeschouwers increased prosperity gradually undermined their traditional civic status.
Trade guilds were not the only interest groups threatened by modern developments in Antwerp.61 Many sectors of the population shared the anxiety generated by the alarming pace of urban land speculation, and Aertsen took on this issue in The Meal Stall as well. In its upper right corner appears a wooden placard to which is affixed a handwritten sign (Fig. 12). Translated from the Flemish, its text reads: "behind here are 154 rods of land for sale immediately, either by the rod or all at once, according to your convenience."62 Represented on the land behind the sign is a tiny scene of the Virgin Mary giving alms of bread to a beggar boy during the Flight into Egypt (Fig. 2). This modest act of Christian charity is dwarfed by the profusion of rich foodstuffs that fills the foreground frame. Scholars discussing the sign have agreed, for the most part, that it functioned as a metaphoric commentary on this scene: the placard warns that a society that places too much value on material gain sacrifices its spiritual wealth.63 In 1989 Matt Kavaler offered a local variant on such readings: that the sign referred to the rapid pace of land development in Antwerp, and its moral turned upon a contrast between real estate profiteering and the charitable work of the Virgin.64 No scholar, however, has yet suggested that Aertsen's placard referred to an identifiable land transfer.
There exists, however, in the Antwerp Stadsarchief, a land sale document from 1551 that corresponds with striking precision to the transaction solicited in The Meal Stall's sign. The city's Collegiale Actenboek of 1551-53 records an act of the magistracy whose pertinent sections read as follows:
Decreed today . . . by my lords the burgomasters, aldermen and council of the city of Antwerp, together with the treasurers and rentmasters of the same city . . . that they . . . transfer, give over ownership and convey . . . to Gilbert van Schoonbeke . . . a piece of land with ground and appurtenances containing one. hundred fifty-four wax and one half . . . coming southward toward the aforesaid [St. Elizabeth] Gasthuis land and the new Bowmen's Guild Houses of the Young and Old Crossbowmen, in which parcel is included one part of the land that this city on the last day of September this year has received from the aforesaid Gasthuis . . . so done this Friday, the 23rd day in the month of October, 1551.65
Despite its boiler-plate legal language, this was anything but: a routine land transfer. It represented the culmination of a hard-fought condemnation proceeding that exemplified the moral expediency attending economic growth in mid-sixteenth-century Antwerp.
In 1551, Antwerp's aldermen had begun a campaign to develop and commercialize their city's southeastern quadrant. The anchor for this development was to be a spacious market hall (pand) for the sale of tapestries, to replace and consolidate this luxury trade's somewhat incongruous venues in the Vleeshuis and the nearby Dominican cloister.66 The site was to be just south of the Meir, an active business thoroughfare.67 This parcel had long been occupied by the Schuttershof, the building and courtyards shared by the city's archers' guilds for shooting practice and social activity. After considerable negotiation, the archers consented to cede their site if the city would finance four new houses-one for each guild-with ample adjoining land. The archers further demanded that the new quarters be located in the same part of town as the old.68 The city at last agreed. It then named Gilbert van Schoonbeke, the rapacious but highly productive entrepreneur already in charge of the rewalling, to develop these projects.69
The undertaking ran into immediate problems. No parcel of land large enough to accommodate the archers' relocation was on the market. The only appropriate tract in the neighborhood was owned by one of the city's oldest and most respected charitable institutions, the St. Elizabeth Gasthuis. This was the city's main hospital, where a small cloister of nuns tended to the sick.70 Early in 1551, the city approached the Gasthuis with an offer to purchase a considerable portion of its land. The prioress refused.71
Prolonged discussions ensued. The Gasthuis sisters advanced three arguments. First, they needed this land as pasture for their animals. Second, it was unthinkable that the city would force them to accept-next door to a house of prayer-shooting clubs where drinking and carousing went on day and night and "men were always making a terrible racket with their drums and pipes." Third, the city's offer of twenty guilders per rod was only half what the land would be worth once the tapestry pand brought more business to the area.73 Intent on pursuing its commercial goals, the city refused to yield. It condemned the land. The sisters appealed to Charles V, to no avail.74 On September 30, 1551, the Gasthuis was forced to transfer to the city 675 rods of ground at twenty guilders each (Figs. 13, 14).75
What transpired next amplified the transaction's moral drama. The city had taken considerably more land than it actually needed. It set aside the larger part for the Schuttershoven. Three weeks later, it sold most of the remainder (nearly one-quarter of the total appropriated) to Gilbert van Schoonbeke, placing him in a position to reap personal financial benefit from the commercialization of the Gasthuis area. This sale included the 154 ½ rods that was recorded in the Actenboek quoted above.76
Van Schoonbeke was one of the most visible figures in mid-sixteenth-century Antwerp. The illegitimate son of a moderately successful businessman, he parlayed a midlevel civic post as weigh master into lucrative partnerships with some of Antwerp's most powerful and unscrupulous individuals, such as Burgomaster Michiel van der Heyden. Van Schoonbeke began by developing new commercial streets, moved on to commercial centers and finally to entire neighborhoods. Through good timing, acumen, and ruthlessness, he achieved a hegemonic position in private land development in Antwerp. he then turned to public works, contracting with the city to build new market neighborhoods, a modern weigh house, and finally its fabulously expensive new defensive walls.78 Between 1554 and 1556, when he became the major provisioner of Habsburg troops, he made a second fortune profiteering from the war with France.79
Van Schoonbeke profoundly reshaped the urban face of Antwerp. In the process, he made a host of enemies.80 His transactions touched virtually all propertied families, many to their detriment. He was continually suspected of graft, and the corruption of his cronies was well known: the burgomaster van der Heyden, for instance, skimmed huge amounts from civic funds, and his suburban pleasure house was built with materials originally requisitioned for the city walls.81 With the help of such men, van Schoonbeke appeared to be aiming at control of the entire urban economy.82 It was within this atmosphere that municipal officials put the development of the tapestry pand and the Schuttershoven in van Schoonbeke's hands.
Pieter Aertsen dated his Meat Stall with surprising specificity: "1551 10 martius" (1551 10 March) (Fig. 15).83 In the Brabantine calendar, the year began not on January 1 but on Good Friday, and official documents were dated accordingly.84 In Brabantine reckoning, therefore, March followed October-the month of the Gasthuis deed. The Meat Stall appeared less than five months after Antwerp's magistrates transferred 154 ½ rods of land confiscated from the city's most venerable charitable institution to its most notorious speculator. In Aertsen's image, a sign offering 154 rods for sale surmounts a scene in which poverty and charity are dwarfed by a display of worldly bounty. Art historians have been correct in thinking that Aertsen's little sign functioned as moral commentary. This was aimed, however, not primarily at the universal struggle between Christian charity and greed, nor even at the generalized cupidity that drove Antwerp's overheated real estate market. Rather, it referred to a specific local scandal. The odor of public corruption that surrounded the Gasthuis land affair lent it particular force as a moral exemplum.
Both this Gasthuis scandal and the Vleeschouwers' suit represented specific instances of larger forces at work in sixteenth-century society; yet they remained profoundly local issues, dependent for their resonance on local knowledge.85 Many additional elements in The Meat Stall confirm the picture's explicit and thoroughgoing appeal to Antwerp insider information. The small pair of hands in the upper left (Fig. 16) were a component of the municipal seal (Fig. 17) and referred to the city's foundation myth: in ancient times the knight Brabo (for whom the surrounding province of Binbant is named) punished the evil giant Antigoon by cutting off the latter's hand and flinging it in the Scheide River (thus the city's name, Antwerpen, from hand werpen, Flemish for "to throw a hand").86 These hands appeared on official documents and as quality control marks stamped on most goods produced in the city (Fig. 18).87 Pervasive in local visual culture, they were an emblem of both civic pride and guarantee, invoking the viewer's native awareness not only of place but also of society, politics, and government.
Tied as well to local context is The Meal Stall'? distinctive portrayal of the Flight into Egypt: as Joseph leads the donkey carrying Mary and the Christ Child, Mary reaches back to give alms of bread to a mendicant boy (Fig. 2). No textual source has been identified for this extrabiblical act of charity, but it does appear in three-and perhaps only three-other images. all of these were painted by Antwerp artists within a few years of Aertsen's picture; two are attributed to the Braunschweiger Monogrammist, and one, dated 1569, is by Joachim Beuckelaer.88 The visual repetition of this scene specifically in Antwerp suggests that it portrays a bit of local apocrypha, perhaps acted out in festival activity. Such a local variant could easily develop in a city whose main church was dedicated to the Virgin and in which the Flight into Egypt, as one of her Seven Sorrows, was reenacted in the streets during Assumption Day festivities.89
Other details evoke additional local referents, though their exact identities remain obscure. A hallmark visible on a plate (Fig. 19) incorporates the flower-and-crown motif reminiscent of a number of Antwerp silversmith's stamps (Fig. 20) and may have belonged to a particular maker. The motto below the hands of Antwerp in the upper left (Fig. 16) is illegible as painted yet may well have been a locally familiar combination of icon and text, recognizable from its shape alone. The most tantalizing of The Meat Stall's local signs are the brightly highlighted emblems that appear on the red wooden post (Fig. 16)-an X with two lines on either side (IIXII) and, below it, a lowercase g and b with a bell and clover leaf between them. For me, these are also the most frustrating elements in the painting. On the one hand, I am convinced they were pivotal in its larger scheme of meaning; on the other, despite years of research, I am unable to identify them precisely.
It is always tempting, as scholars, simply to ignore in our accounts the things we cannot explain. The same questions that are so welcome, even alluring, at the beginning of our inquiries become embarrassments if they remain unanswered at the end.90 The more successful we are in repressing such elements, however, and the more seamless and convincing our arguments appear, the more powerfully they condition others' viewing of an artwork. In this process, the resistant details we have elided become increasingly invisible, their erasure from the image more permanent-even though these signs once had plain meanings that were vital to reception.
So it is with these markings, the embellished X and the "g. b.," which have figured negligibly in discussions of The Meat Stallyet in Antwerp in 1551 would have been instantly recognizable as tradesmen's marks belonging to an identifiable person.91 The upper set takes the form of the huismerk, the device that merchants and craftsmen used to sign contracts and mark their goods.92 These emblems were highly individuated and designed for public recognition; in one family, several members might use the same basic mark with slight variations. Consider, for example, a mark closely mirroring this one in The Meat Stall that appears on a 1566 document from Ronse, in southwestern Belgium (Figs. 21, 22).93 I do not mean to imply that a Ronsean family had any connection whatsoever to Aertsen's painting. To the contrary-these devices were meaningful only within the most local of civic contexts. The "IIXII" of The Meat Stall had its own user in Antwerp; seen then and there it would have readily signified that individual. The lower emblem, as well, adheres to a known heraldic type. When a burgher was elected to office or granted a civic post, it was customary for him to create a seal for himself.94 This often took the form of his initials flanking one or two personally meaningful symbols. Examples include the seal of a meat cutter named De Hee who was a master in the Arras butchers' guild (Fig. 23).95
The person referred to by the particular marks in Aertsen's painting, whether a patron, dedicatee, or subject of the image's commentary, was a central figure in the picture, as palpably present as in a portrait; The Meal Stall's first viewers interpreted this image in light of its relation to and their knowledge of this individual. Sadly, time and distance have rendered him invisible.
If such topical references diminish The Meat Stall's universality as a work of art, they in equal measure increase the aura of ingenuity that must have attended it in Antwerp in 1551. For the savvy viewer, the image's implications in its time and place offered multiple levels of pleasure. Aertsen presented in the work a series of signs requiring the application of esoteric (in this case, local) knowledge, each providing an occasion for the "aha" of recognition, with its attendant sense of power. By invoking special knowledge, Aertsen also created and exploited a split between two potential viewing publics-one informed, the other not-thereby forging a sense of conspiracy between the artist and a knowing subculture of insiders, who, in turn, could enjoy their privileged position vis-a-vis the uninitiated.96 Finally, for those who reflected on its larger implications for artistic practice, the painting could transcend topical specificity to foster meditation on the ultimate contingency of all artistic reception: it was a "pull-dated" picture that analogized itself to the perishables it represents-an artwork that advertised its own ephemerality.97
The Meat Stall and Art Making
Thus far, I have concentrated on The Meat Stall's social history, reforging topical associations that have been unavailable to its audiences for several centuries. I have emphasized not. only the specificity of its reference system but also the surprising involvement of the work in issues of contemporary urban change. Here, however, I shift to a second (although ultimately closely related) line of argument: that The Meat Stall's explicit subject matters-no matter how much I have segregated them for the purpose of discussion-were inseparable from its unprecedented form, and it was in combination that these invoked and commented on modernity in Antwerp in 1551.
I want to revisit, at least briefly, Aertsen's illusionism, so central to his pictorial strategy. Not only The Meat Stall's animal flesh, but its entire foreground area is a tour de force of painterly description. The fine fuzz of the bovine muzzle; the rough graining of weathered wood; the velvety down on a chicken's breast-Aertsen painstakingly rendered these and a dozen other surface textures. In the best Renaissance tradition, he employed variety itself to display his prodigious technique at the height of its powers.98 In one brief passage he juxtaposed four distinct types of burnished metal (Fig. 2), broadcasting his mastery of those specifically Netherlandish specialties, reflection and counterreflection.99 Beyond this, Aertsen skillfully foreshortened objects never before honored with such attention: sausages, fish, a skinned ox head, a recumbent haunch. Achievements such as these led Karel van Mander to portray Aertsen in 1604 as "a great, deft, crafty deceiver," who "caught the colours so naturally that things appear to be real," a painter whose images of objects were so palpable, so convincing, that the viewer would almost "feel like grasping [them] with his hands."100 Van Mander praised Aertsen, above all, for his masterly illusionism and unerring use of color.
But perhaps not so unerring. Consider again the "land for sale" sign at upper right (Fig. 12)-not the signification of its text but the way it is painted. The lettering is cramped and pushed so far to the right that it runs off the paper onto the board behind. It is a classic example of unplanned execution-distinctly, and surprisingly, amateurish. On closer inspection, this is not The Meat Stall's only elementary error. The deep, Mediterranean blue of one patch of sky (outside the little room to the right) clashes unrealistically with the otherwise drab Brabantine atmosphere. Entire slabs of meat, as well as pretzels, defy gravity by hanging without any hooks (Fig. 16). In The Meat Stall's upper left, the text below the hands, while large enough to read, as painted is illegible. And then there is the picture's most illustrious error, its complete upending of pictorial priorities: raw meat thrust in the viewer's face, overwhelming an image of the Virgin Mary. In modern scholarship this last-the compositional inversion-is the focal issue. No account has attended to these other "mistakes." But were they accidental?
Strong evidence suggests the opposite. For over a century the tradition of microscopic realism had trained Netherlandish eyes to be exceptionally alert to detail, and nowhere did viewers employ this facility more self-consciously than in sixteenth-century Antwerp.101 Van Mander repeatedly describes how obsessive looking manifested itself in practice, even taking on the quality of sport before the works of Antwerp painters. He presents Herri met de Bles, for instance, as:
the master of the owl who put into all his works a little owl, which is sometimes so hidden away that people allow each other a lot of time to look for it, wagering that they will not find it anyway, and thus pass their time, looking for the owl.102
He further recounts how before a certain panel by Quentin Metsys there were "always disputes" among spectators over the number of horses' heads to be seen in it.103 And one of the more explicit-and humorous-challenges to close viewing was Joachim Patinir's practice of placing his tiny signature figure, "the cacker," squatting somewhere in the landscape with his britches down; as van Mander says, "you had to search for this little shitter."104 These anecdotes define an audience attentive to every millimeter of a painting's surface, aware that even the smallest details carried potential significance. In this viewing environment, the "mistakes" in The Meat Stall were too obvious to escape audience scrutiny, much less Aertsen's own or that of his assistants.
All four versions of the painting, moreover, faithfully repeat nearly every "error." Three of the four paintings are missing essential hooks; only the Amsterdam version (Fig. 24) includes spikes to hold up its pretzels and side of pork. Even there, the pretzels levitate unrealistically above their hook, belying its function. Its appearance in this version only underscores its absence in the other three. In just one is the "for sale" sign better organized (Maastrict, Fig. 25), but the numbers in this version have clearly been overpainted, and the original status of the whole area is questionable. In all four versions, the sky outside the open window is equally too blue and the motto beneath the hands indecipherable. The "lapses" were evidently carefully planned and executed.
What could Aertsen's purpose have been in perpetrating this visual tomfoolery? Virtually no period literature directly addresses the subject of authorial intention, but in this case one written clue survives. It appears in Aertsen's own reported praise for another artist who had employed comparably deliberate mistakes for comic effect. Aertsen's comments arc found in Pieter Opmeer's Martelaars boek, a history of prominent Netherlandish Catholics, in which the author describes the work of a painter named Jan Einout, who was active in the 1520s. Opmeer recounts a conversation about Einout that he shared with Pieter Aertsen in 1575:
Seeing that his countryman Desiderius Erasmus had spread the glory of his name far and wide through his satire The Praise of Folly, so he [Einout] painted a History of the Passion of Christ with many colors and in a clever way, and embellished it with witty figures and with images from earlier Masters, and this way so clearly laid bare their mistakes that he seemed to make a public spectacle of Art.
This work was pleasing and delighted the most, dignified and grave. Which Petrus Longus (that is Tall Peter [Aertsen]), another Apelles of his Century, used to esteem so highly that he said on his deathbed, in my presence, that this piece could not be valued in money.105
This last was the highest possible praise.106 Einout's witty pastiche of artistic errors made such an indelible impression on Pieter Aertsen that its memory still gave him pleasure in the last hours of his life.
This passage has frequently been quoted in the literature on Aertsen, but only Reindert Falkenburg has undertaken to apply it to specific aspects of the artist's painting practice.107 Falkenburg explores its relation to two fundamental and interrelated conceptual threads in Aertsen's kitchen, market, and peasant pictures: their embrace of Erasmian paradoxical encomium and their parodie transgression of Albertian compositional precepts.
The paradoxical encomium, a rhetorical form adapted from classical oratory, proved highly popular among sixteenth-century Netherlandish humanists.108 In it, high praise is lavished ironically on low subject matter for the dual purposes of demonstrating the skill and extending the fame of the author.109 Noted ancient examples include Lucian's "Praise of the Fly" and Synesius's "Eulogy of Baldness."110 Desiderius Erasmus was the most famous of its Renaissance practitioners. The title of his first popular work, The Praise of Folly, is itself a statement of the paradoxical encomium's central, satirical contradiction, while its text constitutes an extended exercise in this rhetorical device.111 As Opmeer's passage indicates, Jan Einout recognized that The Praise of Folly did for Erasmus exactly what the classical paradoxical encomium was designed to do: spread the author's glory far and wide.
Reindert Falkenburg has made clear, however, that Erasmus employed this ironic trope for more than mere self-aggrandizement. He turned it to moral purpose: to implicate his readers in the folly he describes and-with appealing humor rather than offensive righteousness-to bring them to self-awareness.112 Falkenburg argues that many works in Aertsen's oeuvre correspond in form and purpose to Erasmian paradoxical encomium. The peasant and market images, for example, render boorish figures (low subjects) in large scale, and classicizing poses (high form) in a manner designed to make viewers perceive their own vices and pretensions.113 For Falkenburg, reading The Meal Stall as, paradoxical encomium, its foregrounded foodstuffs comprise its "low" subject matter, while Aertsen's virtuosity in their handling and his monumental presentation of them comprise "high" form and praise.114
Falkenburg's second important set of insights involves Pieter Aertsen's witty assault on then-fashionable artistic principles-in particular, on Leon Battista Alberti's prescriptions for pictorial decorum and genre hierarchy. It was Alberti who, in 1435, had codified as the preeminent genre of painting the historia: depiction of the ideal human form in narrative representations, coherently presented and designed to encourage high standards of behavior.115 Recognizing the violations of Albertian convention in Aertsen's work, Falkenburg proposes that the artist's intention may have been radical and unprecedented: to create imagery utterly outside-indeed, against-all genre conventions.116 Falkenburg furthermore reads the carefully executed chaos of Aertsen's kitchen and market scenes as parodies of Alberti's exhortations to compositional gravity, moderation, and dignity.117 Aertsen's execution, in Falkenburg's words, "shows exactly the mistakes against which Alberti warns."118 By concentrating on Aertsen's breaches of Albertian decorum, Falkenburg implicitly casts the artist's project as responsive to a set of pictorial norms current in 1551-norms explicitly of Italian origin. His conclusions strike me as utterly convincing. In regard to The Meat Stall, however, they tell only half the story, for they do not address the second order of "mistakes" that I have described above.
Aertsen's minute painterly lapses in The Meal Stall satirize not so much a class of learned, Italianate theoretical precepts as they do a set of distinctly homegrown (and practice-oriented) artistic pieties. Since the time of Jan van Eyck, the special pride of Flemish painters had revolved around exacting standards of skill and precision. As Karel van Mander later catalogued them, these included patientie and aendacht-patience and meticulous attention to the smallest detail; netticheyt, or the "neatness" that informed perfect execution; and naer tleven ("according to life"), which referred both to the sense that the phenomena the artist recorded had been acutely observed and to the illusion in viewers that they perceived these phenomena firsthand.119 In the context of these chauvinistically Netherlandish principles, Aertsen's seemingly casual lapses of the brush-the forgotten hooks, the too-blue sky, the amateurish lettering-cut deeply against the grain. His errors acknowledged-and then defied-the most cherished conventions of Netherlandish painting: its perfect illusionism and its obsession with detail. Paradoxically, of course, Aertsen's errors also served as the measure of his mastery, for, as literary critic Susan Stewart points out, mistakes of such a nature demonstrate "a flaunted, a skillful, incompetence . . . that implies competence and the limits of competence with its every gesture."120
Here, too, Erasmus provided Aertsen with a model: a skillful "error" that in fact flaunted the author's wit and erudition. Its irony was aimed, moreover, at northern Europe's most celebrated artist, Albrecht Durer. Erasmus and Durer maintained contact for many years, at times directly, at times through a mutual friend, Nuremberg humanist Willibald Pirckheimer.121 In 1520, Durer made a portrait drawing from life of Erasmus that pleased the writer so much that he pressed for the artist to develop it into a formal engraving.122 If Erasmus had hoped for a speedy execution of his request, however, he was to be disappointed. Durer, notorious for his extended length of preparation and perfectionism, did not deliver the belated product until six years later.123
Soon thereafter, at Pirckheimer's urging, Erasmus published a living eulogy to Durer.124 This panegyric is replete with elegant (if highly conventional) Plinian comparisons linking Durer to the greatest artist of the ancient world, Apelles. he is first heralded as the "Apelles of our age," then raised in dignity even above the earlier artist, for (Erasmus explains) the painterly effects that the Greek could achieve only with the help of colors, Durer accomplishes sublimely in his engravings through mere black lines on white paper.125
As Erwin Panofsky pointed out, however, this panegyric is marked by one puzzling "error" on Erasmus's part.126 In likening Durer to his ancient counterpart, he describes Apelles as "the prince of this art upon whom no reproach could be cast except that he did not know when to take his hand off the panel [rnanum tollere de labula]. . . ." 127 What Panofsky registered immediately-as did surely Durer and Pirckheimer, as well as humanists and artists generally-was that Pliny had named Protogenes, a different artist altogether (in explicit and emphatic contrast to Apelles), as the one who knew not when to remove his hand from the panel.128 As Panofsky observed, it is difficult to conceive that Erasmus's lapse was unconscious. He had not only published his own edition of Pliny shortly before (1525), but also, even more to the point, had included "rnanum de tabula," with reference to Protogenes and appropriate moral commentary, in the latest edition of his Adages.129 Interrogating Erasmus's "remarkable inversion" of Pliny, Panofsky concludes that it could only have been intentional.130 Disguising his criticism as an apparent "mistake," Erasmus took revenge on Durer's obsessiveness and tardiness, but did so through a form of ironic praise, which he himself called "speciosa reprehensio" (splendid blame).131 This is splendid blame indeed, which celebrates even as it scolds.
The specificity and sophistication of Erasmus's Plinian "error" find an echo in The Meal Stall. Aertsen's "mistakes," like Erasmus's, reveal their full brilliance only to those audience members who are visually erudite, connoisseurs of artistic perfection, and-equally important-familiar enough with Aertsen's skill to comprehend that he is toying with them. The similarity does not stop there, however, for The Meat Stall contains its own example of "splendid blame," directed at a cohort of noted painters. Its central inversion, the foregrounding of inanimate subject matter and diminishment of human activity, functions as an insider parody of contemporary Netherlandish painting practice. This satire was aimed at distinctly local developments in the artistic laboratory of sixteenth-century Antwerp, where many new forms were stretching the boundaries of tradition.
The Meat Stall took several of these to their extremes. Its diminutive Flight into Egypt suggests the distant background position of sacred events in the Braunschweiger Monogrammist's crowded Passion pictures (Fig. 26).132 Its differential treatment of inanimate objects and human figures-the former so illusionistically detailed,