Counting Cats in Zanzibar Rotating Header Image

The Egg Dance

I’ve recently got back from Amsterdam. Now I suppose it is moderately unusual to collapse into giggles in the Rijksmuseum’s section on Dutch 12th-17th Century art but I managed it. This is a detail from the picture that made me laugh…

That is a detail from The Egg Dance by Pieter Aertsen.

What made me laugh though was the caption next to it…

At right, in this brothel, a young man does an egg dance to the music of a bagpiper. While dancing, he had to roll an egg within a chalk circle – without it breaking – and to cover it with a wooden bowl. This ‘pointless’ amusement, along with the dissolute behaviour of the other figures, served as a moral warning against debauchery.

Emphasis mine. I just loved the phrase “This ‘pointless’ amusement”. Sums up life really. Less, seriously though, this was painted in 1552 and I guess you had to make your own amusement back then. The Rijksmuseum does also boast a large collection of impedimenta for drinking games. An inventive (if drunken) lot those renaissance Dutch.

In fact it stuck in my mind so much that upon my return I googled (I think the term is so ubiquitous as to have lost the capital like “hoover” has) the picture. I found this.

Now one of the first things I wondered was why the Rijksmuseum was so sure it was a brothel. To me (and my wife) it just looked like a fairly chaotic party in a home…

At the back of the room an old man is playing the bagpipes. Because of its shape, the instrument often symbolised the male genitalia. In the window is a jug containing a leek, a vegetable of the onion family. A sixteenth-century viewer would immediately have realised that the scene was a room in a brothel. Onions were supposed to be a stimulant. All around lie onion flowers, leek leaves and mussels, which were supposed to have the same quality. It was also thought to be true of eggs, the theme of the painting.

OK, the bagpipes I kinda got already. That’s a bit of a classic (cf Hieronymous Bosch)…

… Or indeed this. It is amazing how, across culture, time and geography, symbolism can be both steady yet sometimes obscure like the leek. Though that might explain the perennial appeal of Sir Tom Jones (or why, as I type, the Welsh are giving the Scots a hammering at the Rugby). This evening I shall be in the peculiar situation of cheering on France). Anyway back to my point.

From the same source (I almost hit “sauce” – hmm…)…

Pieter Aertsen has given this piquant scene a moral message that appears to reflect his own moral reservations. A joker is depicted on one of the wooden boards on the table, left, and on the other a goat jumping. These are cards in a Tarot set. In the sixteenth century everyone would have understood that these symbolised drunkenness and lust. The reel above the fireplace on the right is a sign of folly: in fact ‘reeling’ is still used today to describe a person swaying or staggering from the effects of alcohol.

The Egg Dance is one of the earliest paintings of a peasant scene. The elongated form suggests it was designed to be hung above a fireplace. This kind of genre painting was popular among the burghers of the cities. The moralistic message was often an excuse to paint a piquant scene. Aertsen was also commissioned to paint large religious works for churches. However, many of these were destroyed during the Iconoclast fury.

Emphasis mine. There is something almost reassuring about the continuity of this moral hypocrisy. We see it in modern times with the Islamosphere and the idea that a normally dressed woman is a hussy. And elsewhere.

“…the American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs” and she shows all this and does not hide it.”

- Sayyid Qutb (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood who are currently sexually assaulting “inappropriately hijabed” women and girls in Egypt” describing a Methodist tea-dance in Colorado in 1950.

Qutb apparently died a virgin having failed to find a woman “pure” enough for him. It would be farcical but for the Hell that has followed in his wake.

Or what about the most sanctimonious of businesses – the Co-op and it’s “Crystal Methodist”? The Co-op sells “ethical water” (whatever that might be) and it’s ordained Methodist preacher bank boss was using crystal meth, crack cocaine, ketamine and rent boys. Oh, and the bank had a “black hole” of over GBP1.5bn.

My favouritist newspaper in all the World is of course the Daily Mail which routinely in it’s “News” section includes scare stories about the sexualization of girls and women being driven into eating disorders by being “forced” by the media into looking like models and starlets right next to the “Femail” column (how cute) which is supposed to be about women’s issues (yeah, right). It includes stuff like this all the time.

So, to tie this all together… I’m not sure how but in some sense (and there are different variations but the basic tune is always the same) “elites”* of all descriptions will always find some sort of justification to indulge in the sins they would deny the plebs or… Well, something along those lines. Qutb is an outlier but there is still the same infernal moral arrogance of “I can see this for I am pure but you can’t”. It is the same as the burghers of Amsterdam all those years ago titillating themselves whilst feeling (or pretending to feel) morally superior to the lower orders.

Apparently there are things in the dungeon of the British Library that are so vile they can only be accessed in the presence of a couple of trustees of the British Library and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I bet Prince Philip has had a gleg…

*A term in political discourse I hate because when I was a lad “elite” meant the SAS and such. And not just gits.

5 Comments

  1. john in cheshire says:

    “a gleg..” that’s a new word for me; never seen it before; where is it from?

  2. NickM says:

    jic,
    Your tag-name gives your ignorance away. it is Geordie you see. It means a sneaky look. It’s a bit like an “Oop Norf” version of having a “Butcher’s”.

  3. bloke in spain says:

    Not sure if the references to onions, leeks & mussels as aphrodisiacs are particularly strong. I know Flanders to the south & the three are ubiquitous. The first two are common crops & moules et frites is the local fish’n chips. On the other hand, if you see les filles de Flandres at Ieper market you can understand the pressing need for aphrodisiacs. They do say, when looking for a wife, a Flemish farmer prefers a strapping one. If the horse gets sick, she can pull the plough. Carrying the horse under one arm,, by the look of some of them.

  4. NickM says:

    Or as Henry VIII put it… A Flanders Mare.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: