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
4Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel;
for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or kindness,
and no knowledge of God in the land;
2there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery;
they break all bounds and murder follows murder.
3Therefore the land mourns,
and all who dwell in it languish,
and also the beasts of the field,
and the birds of the air;
and even the fish of the sea are taken away.
4Yet let no one contend,
and let none accuse,
for with you is my contention, O priest.
5You shall stumble by day,
the prophet also shall stumble with you by night;
and I will destroy your mother.
6My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
because you have rejected knowledge,
I reject you from being a priest to me.
And since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I also will forget your children.
7The more they increased,
the more they sinned against me;
I will change their glory into shame.
8They feed on the sin of my people;
they are greedy for their iniquity.
9And it shall be like people, like priest;
I will punish them for their ways,
and requite them for their deeds.
10They shall eat, but not be satisfied;
they shall play the harlot, but not multiply;
because they have forsaken the Lord
to cherish harlotry.
11Wine and new wine
take away the understanding.
12My people inquire of a thing of wood,
and their staff gives them oracles.
For a spirit of harlotry has led them astray,
and they have left their God to play the harlot.
13They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains,
and make offerings upon the hills,
under oak, poplar, and terebinth,
because their shade is good.
Therefore your daughters play the harlot,
and your brides commit adultery.
14I will not punish your daughters when they play the harlot,
nor your brides when they commit adultery;
for the men themselves go aside with harlots,
and sacrifice with cult prostitutes,
and a people without understanding shall come to ruin.
15Though you play the harlot, O Israel,
let not Judah become guilty.
Enter not into Gilgal,
nor go up to Beth-aʹven,
and swear not, “As the Lord lives.”
16Like a stubborn heifer,
Israel is stubborn;
can the Lord now feed them
like a lamb in a broad pasture?
17Eʹphraim is joined to idols,
let him alone.
18A band of drunkards, they give themselves to harlotry;
they love shame more than their glory.
19A wind has wrapped them in its wings,
and they shall be ashamed because of their altars.