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A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms (work of art)

Artwork Info

Created
1551
Nationality
Dutch
Birth/Death
1508-1575
Dimensions
45 1/2 x 66 1/2 inches (115.6 x 168.9 centimeters)

Credit

Purchased with funds from Wendell and Linda Murphy and various donors, by exchange

Object Number
93.2
Culture
Dutch European
Classification
Paintings
Department
European to 1910

Key Ideas about this Work of Art

  • This still life painting depicts a large display of animal products at an outdoor market. 
  • Still life paintings are works of art that feature human-made or natural objects that are not alive. These objects include cut flowers, fruit, vegetables, fish, and game (wild animals that are hunted). Still lifes  were often created to showcase an artist’s talent, highlight the beauty of everyday life, or illustrate religious stories.
  • The scenes in the foreground and background of this painting represent two related ideas. The objects in the meat stall are sources of food (nourishment for the human body). The depiction of the Holy Family giving alms (donations) to people in need represents a different type of food: nourishment for the human soul.
  • The NCMA Conservation Department used infrared technology to examine this painting. They found the artist’s sketch under layers of paint. They also saw the changes he made when he painted over his sketch. These findings show that this is the artist’s original painting.

Learn More

This still life painting features a large display of meat products. In the background the Holy Family is shown giving donations to people in need. There are two fish (in the shape of a cross) depicted in front of the Holy Family. The fish point toward the figures in the background. In 16th-century Dutch culture, fish was an important food source during holy seasons when eating meat was not allowed by the Church.

This painting reverses the way that subjects are usually featured in a still life. Traditional still life paintings depict a religious or mythological scene as the main subject. Inanimate (nonliving) objects are included as details or decorations. Aertsen depicts the Holy Family in the background instead of featuring them as the main subject. This was a new approach to communicating a message in a work of art. Some art historians interpret this work as a commentary on the ways people consume “food for the body” versus “food for the spirit” (nourishment for the human soul).

This painting shocked many viewers when the artist created it. It was considered a bold move to feature nonliving objects this way in a painting. In spite of this, his painting quickly became famous and many copies of it were made. Copies of paintings generally do not have any underdrawing, or sketches beneath the layers of paint. They also do not include the artist’s changes. The NCMA Conservation Department used infrared technology to examine this painting. They discovered that the sketch under the layers of paint is different from the final version. Their findings indicate that this is Aertsen’s original painting.

Additional Resources

Resources for Teachers: 

 

Resources for Students:

  • Watch a video to learn how to create a still life using everyday objects.
  • View another painting by Pieter Aertsen with specific objects in the foreground that make a statement about what is happening in the background.
  • Read an article about this painting and discover the bold ways this artist communicates a message in his work.

Images

  • An oil painting of a 16th-century market scene depicting a vendor’s display of meat and slaughtered animals. In the distant background, a woman riding on a donkey is traveling with her family and giving donations to other people.

    A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms

  • An oil painting of a 16th-century market scene depicting a vendor’s display of meat and slaughtered animals. In the distant background, a woman riding on a donkey is traveling with her family and giving donations to other people.

    Detail of the infrared image of the artwork revealing the artist’s underdrawing, which was applied before the paint layers.

    Pieter Aertsen, A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms, 93.2