Ash Wednesday, Mercredi des Cendres

Ash Wednesday Carl Spitzweg

Ash Wednesday follows Fat Tuesday, and the mood could not be more different. Today, a day of fast and prayer, marks the beginning of Lent. The day of ashes on foreheads, and the admonition Memento, homo, quod pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”)

No better illustration of the contrast between Carnival and Lent than this work by the 19th century Bavarian artist Carl Spitzweg. Spitzweg, though classified as a Romanticist, admired and emulated the genre paintings of the 17th century Flemish school. His style is often humorous and down-to-earth (two qualities I find somewhat lacking in Romantic art.)

Note how the character here is still wearing his cheerful Carnival costume. Only he probably pushed the spirit of revelry a bit too far and gets to spend Ash Wednesday in jail, a pitcher of water as his sole company.

The projection of the bars of the window and mournful attitude of our character bring home his contrition, and yet sunlight floods the cell, symbolizing the forgiveness and hope that follow atonement.

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13 Comments to “Ash Wednesday, Mercredi des Cendres”

  1. Catherine Delors says:

    New Orleans style indeed, Penny! Carnival is so emblematic of the city. I wonder how this survived the devastation of Katrina.
    And Easter Monday is April 13 this year.

  2. penny klein says:

    I love the painting. He does look like he has had a little too much “New Orleans” style revelry. seriously, I just noticed that Ash Wednesday was also the first day of the month for Jews. Passover is around the corner. is Easter as close?

  3. Christian says:

    I appreciate your comment. Perhaps I should read one of your novels. Take care.

  4. Sylwia says:

    In our history that particular court jester is thought to be wiser than the three kings he worked for. It must have been tough for him to witness their folly. ;)

    Yes, the very same.

  5. Ingrid Mida says:

    What a lovely painting. I studied art history and I’ve never seen it before. Thanks for posting it.

  6. Caitlin says:

    Gorgeous painting and interesting post. Thanks!

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Sylwia! It looks like it was a tough job being a Court jester.
    By the way, are you the Sylwia from Eighteenth Century Worlds?

  8. Sylwia says:

    We have two celebrations in Poland. Fat Thursday and then Ostatki (Last Day) the following week that is like the French Mardi Gras. They mark the beginning and the end of the last week of Carnival.

    The painting is great! It reminded me of another, also a 19th century one, where the symbolism seems to be the opposite, although it’s as ironic.

    Stańczyk was a famous jester employed by three Polish kings: Alexander, Sigismund the Old and Sigismund Augustus. On the painting he banishes himself from the company. Others are having fun in the room behind him, while he’s too depressed by political events to join in their merriment.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you so much, Matterhorn!

  10. Matterhorn says:

    Wonderful post! I took the liberty of linking to it.

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Eva and Amy! It is one of the great joy of blogging: sharing the things I love. Spitzweg deserves to be better known, doesn’t he?

  12. Beautiful post – the painting is magnificent and so powerful and I love your insight.

  13. Eva says:

    I love this painting Catherine! Thanks so much for taking the time to share it. :)

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