November 24, 2017


        Having glorified pie in my last post, today seems a good day to look at how a handful of artists have explored the theme of gluttony in block prints.  Not surprisingly, series of prints depicting the seven deadly sins were more popular five hundred years ago, but nevertheless, there’s an interesting diversity in the way the vice has been personified or represented.
        We begin with a fat belly and a long neck, the latter on the theory that having a long neck would allow you to enjoy your food all the way down, and the former on the theory that you’ve already eaten too much.  The birds are also apparently traditional symbols of gluttony, so clearly in the sixteenth century the phrase “to eat like a bird” would have meant something very different.
        Nowadays the animal that most symbolizes gluttony is the pig, and that was true back in the sixteenth century, too.  This comfortably plump woman is standing beside a pig, and holding a goblet and a pack of cards.  Despite the flames (hellfire?) around her feet, she doesn’t look nearly so badly off compared with today’s gluttons gorging on burgers and booze.  This twenty-first century image by James Todd includes the figure of death.  After all, they are deadly sins, aren’t they?
        Some artists choose to imagine an embodiment of the vice itself, instead of the people who indulge in it, coming up with monsters of gluttony.  Hans Baldung’s monster looks avidly grasping, which seems plausible although it’s a different twist from the big bellies of our previous depictions.  Certainly it looks like something you’d want to stay away from.
        And then there’s this straight up what-the-heck-? scene based on Bruegel’s work.  This piece is dense with allegory, and while the pig, the people guzzling from jugs, and the little man carrying his belly on a wheelbarrow are all perfectly straightforward, who knows what’s up with the windmill in the shape of a man’s head, the bagpipes slung over the tree, or the buildings on fire way in the background.
        Gluttony can literally kill you in the form of addictions to drink or drugs, and all the health problems correlated with obesity, but that’s not why the deadly sins are called deadly.  The idea is that gluttony is deadly to the spirit.  How are we prone to gluttony now?  And do any of these prints still serve to illustrate that spiritual danger in a meaningful way?

[Pictures: Gourmandie (Gluttony), wood block print from Emblemata by Alciatus, 1549 (Image from Sensory Studies);
Fresikeit (Gluttony), wood block print by Hans Burgkmair the Elder, c 1510 (Image from The British Museum);
The Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony, woodcut by James Todd, 2010 (Image from Matrix Press);
Fressery (Gluttony), detail from wood block print of all seven sins by Hans Baldung Grien, 1511 (Image from Red Baron’s Blog);
Gula (Gluttony), engraving by Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1558 (Image from The Met).]

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