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A battle for the heart

12 February 2021

Mark Oakley reflects on preparing for the observance of Lent


The Fight between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (oil on panel, 1559)

The Fight between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (oil on panel, 1559)

IT HAS been said that the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. Lent is time set aside each year to take this thought seriously.

A few years ago, there was a story in the papers about a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It is currently on display in the marvellous Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna; but the National Museum in Krakow claims ownership of the painting, and says that it was stolen in 1939 by the wife of the city’s Nazi governor during the occupation of Poland.

The painting, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, was painted in 1559. It is a beautifully typical Bruegel. It is a large, crowded canvas with nearly 200 men, women, and children depicted. We find ourselves looking down on a town square during a riotous festival.

The painting can be looked at in two halves. On the right, we see a church and people leaving after prayer. We see them giving alms to the poor, feeding the hungry, helping those with disability, calling attention to their need, and tending to the dying. On the left, we see an inn. Congregated around it are beer-drinkers, gamblers, various saucy types. The vulnerable near by are not noticed, including a solitary procession of lepers. Instead, a man vomits out of a window, and another bangs his head against a wall.

In the foreground, we see two figures being pulled towards each other on floats. One is Lady Lent, gaunt and unshowy, dressed as a nun, with followers eating pretzels and fish and drawing fresh water from a large well.

The other is Carnival, a fat figure, armed with a meat spit and a pork-pie helmet. He is followed by masked carousers. A man in yellow, the symbolic colour of deceit, pushes his float — though he looks rather weighed down by cups and a bag of belongings. In the background, we see, on the left, some stark, leafless trees; but, on the right, buds are awakening on the branches, and, as if to see them better, a woman is busily cleaning her windows.

It is an allegorical delight, and we might do worse than take a close look at it some time this Lent. It is tempting to classify each human there as either good or bad, secular or faithful, kind or indifferent. We love to place people into convenient cutlery trays, dividing them all up as is most useful for us. What I love about this painting, however, is that it reminds me that we are all similarly made with two halves.

For many of us, there is a constant fight going on within between the times when we are negligent and the times when we are careful;between days when we get through with a self that enjoys its own attention, being centre stage, and days when our self just feels somehow more itself when not being selfish.

I have an impulse to pray; I have an impulse to avoid or forget it. There are parts of me grotesquely masked, and there are parts trying to clean my windows on a ladder, as it were — wanting to increase my transparency and attention to the world, myself, and my relationships.


LENT begins with the making of a small dusty cross on my head, the hard case that protects the organ that makes decisions. The season starts by asking me to imagine how life might be if the imprint of Christ’s courageous compassion made itself felt and acted on rather than just passionately talked about.

Lent knows what we are like. It has seen the painting. It has read a bit of Freud, some history books, political manifestos, and memoirs of hurt and achievement. It winces at our cyclical, self-destructive repetitions. It believes in us, though, knowing that, with God and each other, if we reach outside our own hardened little worlds, we set the scene to be helped and, maybe, even changed. That would be good — for me and those who live with me.

In the Gospels, the 40 days that Jesus spent in the beguiling wilderness immediately followed his baptism. Coming up out of the water, he had heard the unmistakable voice that matters, telling him he was cherished, wanted, and ready. He then goes into the heat, spending time with himself, hearing other voices that want him to live down to them; but he knows that his vocation can be lived only when he learns to live up to the one voice that he heard that day in the river, not down to the ones that want him to live some indifferent and submerged existence as a consumer of the world and not as a citizen of the Kingdom.

We follow him. Where he goes, so do we. A wilderness Lent is needed more than ever to do some heart-repair and start becoming Christians again.

I don’t know who owns the Bruegel painting. What I do know is that its themes belong to all of us; our inner landscape matches his rowdy town square. As long as the fight continues, the soul will be alive.


Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.

This is an edited extract from the Lent section of Reflections for Daily Prayer 2020-2021 published by Church House Publishing at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-78140-179-8. For the Reflec­tions for Daily Prayer app (£12.99) visit chpublishing.co.uk/apps/reflections-for-daily-prayer.

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