A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms (The Butcher's Shop) by Pieter Aertsen

Pieter Aertsen

A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms (The Butcher's Shop), 1551, Oil on panel, 115.6 x 168.9 cm, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Purchased with funds from Wendell and Linda Murphy and various donors, by exchange, 93.2, Bridgeman Images

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

They Shall Eat, But Not Be Satisfied

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

If this indeed is A Butcher’s Shop or a Meat Stall, one wonders why two fishes (herring?) are displayed on a pewter dish among this cornucopia of meat. However, looking closely, a great variety of different foodstuffs appears. Among the beef, pork, and poultry, there are kippers too, and pretzels, pies, and dairy products, bathing in painterly light. Hosea’s ‘beasts of the field’, ‘birds of the air’, and ‘even the fish’, are here shown as having been ‘taken away’ by man (Hosea 4:3).

Then, the viewer is drawn to what could be called a background, but one that counterintuitively contains human action. On the right, a man is filling an earthenware jug with water from a well, surrounded by scattered oyster shells. Beyond, a second hung carcass acts as a curtain to an interior scene, with men and women around a table in front of a fireplace, appearing to have a sinfully good time. In the left background, a scene that is familiar: an older man guiding a woman on a donkey carrying a small child. This must be the ‘flight into Egypt’ of Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus.

Only then does one realize that the Holy Family is painted right above the fishes. The fishes, in fact, are crossed, and look like a crucifix. They are a clue to the fact that—beyond the narrative in the left background—Pieter Aertsen’s horror vacui ‘still life’ contains many explicit and implicit Christian references.

It balances virtue and vice. In the flight into Egypt scene Mary is handing out alms—or one could call it ‘spiritual food’ (Craig 1982: 6). Meanwhile, its counterpoint on the right appears in fact to be a brothel scene, invoking temptations of the flesh; flesh that is quite literally offered to the Butcher Shop’s ‘visitor’. The passage from Hosea seems to sum up this part of the composition well: ‘They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the harlot, but not multiply’ (4:10).

Aertsen’s plentiful painting seems to ask for introspection. Maybe, as well as temptation, there is redemption in the flesh as well—the very flesh that is fleeing to Egypt in the painting’s background?



Craig, Kenneth M. 1982. ‘Pieter Aertsen and the “Meat Stall”’, Oud Holland, 96.1: 6

Read comparative commentary