Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Food Related Painting of the Week

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
Vincenzo Campi, ca. 1580

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
(from the Web Gallery of Art)

Another "inside-out" painting, this time from Italy. Lots of fun things in this one. In the upper left hanging next to the duck and a skewered chicken is a little wild pig - almost too cute to eat. It's a good reminder that they were eating a lot of game animals. Similarly, there's a lot of fish here too, and a beautiful salmon steak. With the church forbidding meat on three days out of the week, fish was very important.

In the middle of all those fish though, in the lower left corner of the painting, is a lobster. At one point I'd been told that medieval Europeans weren't eating north Atlantic lobster, but instead ate Mediterranean ones - which look different and don't have the big claws. However almost all of the lobsters I've seen depicted in paintings like this one are clearly north Atlantic. This shows that the trade of fresh seafood was quite impressive. Huge amounts of fish were carted for hundreds of miles inland. Where possible, it was kept alive in barrels. These were not "simpler times".

In the center we have some songbirds - larks? - some small loaves of bread, and an artichoke. Among the things in the seller's basket are a couple of different colors of carrots and a lumpy green thing. It could be a melon of some kind, or maybe a fat cucumber. I'll have to spend some time trying to figure that one out. Oh, and in the upper right are those big, round heads of very modern looking cabbage.

In the lower right, if you look underneath those birds, are some folded white tablecloths. The draping of the table was very important, and medieval stewards wrote detailed instructions on how to do it correctly in books like The Boke of Keruynge (Peter Brears, ed.). It required three tablecloths per section of table, with special folds and sections to delineate where the lord of the manor sat. I don't think that storing tablecloths underneath ducks and geese was the recommended way of keeping them clean though.


Anonymous said...

I have been trying to refrain from commenting on the non-food related aspects of these paintings, which has been rather difficult as they are quite spectacular. However, with this particular one I was curious as to what indicates the character in the forefront as being a "seller" besides the fact that that seems to be a common theme in most food-related paintings from the Middle Ages. It just seems as if, considering the title (and maybe--I'm over-simplifying here and probably stretching for support a bit--that the lighting and surroundings in the main part of the painting appear to indicate that the setting is entirely inside), this might actually be Martha. I am certainly no expert in how Medieval food was prepared, so I won't venture to guess what she is doing beyond maybe preparing it for a meal (if that even is the case). I hope this contributes to the subject of Medieval cookery in some way--maybe to further support your suggestion for all of the fish in that it would give the work a more religious theme than the last one with a similar format?--since I wouldn't want to get off-topic and miss the point of it. ~obsequious

Jules Frusher said...

I find it fascinating taking time to look really hard at these pictures (on a larger scale of course) and try and identify the food before I read the post. Seeing such familiar items really brings us close to the people of the past, I think.

By the way - the lumpy green thing in the basket - my 13yr old daughter suggested that it may be a lettuce of some sort? I go with the cucumber myself, but I thought I'd add that as a suggestion.

Doc said...

My reference to the figure in the forefront as a "seller" was indeed arbitrary - that's how such people in paintings are often identified. *shrug* It's as good an identifier as any.

Because of how these "inside-out" paintings are usually set up (i.e. with the titled content in a small portion of the background of an elaborate and generally unrelated still-life), I'd not be inclined to think the figure is Martha. Of course I could be wrong. This is another of those things that makes me wish for a time machine.

Oh, and don't be afraid to comment on the non-food aspects of the paintings. Being somewhat food obsessed, I'm usually curious (and often surprised) at what parts of such paintings catch the interest of others.