Monday, January 7, 2008

Mystery Objects

As a food-geek, I often find myself looking at the wrong part of a painting. Presented with a medieval scene depicting Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem, I'm ignoring the figures in the foreground and instead stare at some small plant in the background mumbling something like, "Is that a carrot?" Occasionally I'm even quite annoyed at the subjects in the foreground for being in the way.

To the rescue come the late-medieval Flemish artists, who decided that the setting was much more fun to paint and therefore relegated the action of the painting to the background. The resulting still-life paintings often contain all sorts of interesting food-related items, and the main characters don't get in the way. A fine example is the painting by Pieter Aertsen commonly called "The Butcher Stall" - though apparently it's meant to be "The Flight into Egypt."

Butcher's Stall (1551)
Pieter Aertsen

There are all sorts of neat things in here, and most are easily identified: sausages, fish, animal parts, bowl of broth with a layer of hard fat on the top, even pretzels. Oh, and if you look carefully, in the background, just to the left of the pig head some people are fleeing to Egypt or something.

But wait ... what in the world are those things next to the pig feet, just in front of the cow head?

Weird Things

It's a butcher's stall, so they're most likely meat-related. Cheese? If so, then I don't think I want to try any of the brown ones. Maybe the brown ones are congealed blood. Are the cream-colored ones suet then? Dunno. Then there's this thing ...

Another Weird Thing

Again, I'm really not sure what this is. Butter, maybe?

I guess my point here is that even when a painting of medieval foodstuffs was obviously meant to be a realistic depiction, it's not always clear just what everything is. Such paintings have sparked long debates, and many items in them will probably remain mysterious - even though their identity was most likely obvious to the painter.

Of course, if anyone out ther has any idea what these things are, I'd love to hear it!


Mike said...

I suspect those weird things are indeed different types of cheese.

See Pieter Bruegel's "The Land of Cockaigne" for something that looks extremely similiar (seen on the roof at the top left).
Cockaigne is described as a place where the skies rain cheese.


Anonymous said...

What season was Pieter trying to display in this image?