What weddings looked like 450 years ago?

‘The Wedding Feast’ by Pieter Brueghel the Younger sells for £1.8m at Sotheby’s

‘The Wedding Feast’ by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

‘The Wedding Feast’ by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

 

What did weddings look like four centuries ago? Art provides rare glimpses. There’s a very famous 16th-century painting, The Peasant Wedding, dating from around 1568, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, that’s now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna that shows a country village wedding which takes place inside a barn. The artist’s son later tackled the same subject, inspired by – or jealous of – his father’s talent and success.

One of four examples of the composition painted by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and entitled The Wedding Feast went under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London earlier this month and sold for £1.8 million (€2m) – comfortably exceeding the estimate (£1 million-£1.5 million).

It’s a stunning painting and provides a fascinatingly detailed insight into social life in Flanders 450 years ago. The scene depicts a country village wedding – after the harvest, which was considered a lucky time of year to get married.

All of the female guests wear white headscarves but the bride herself, seated beneath a paper crown, is wearing a blue dress and a wreath of flowers in her hair. Among the guests is the notary (lawyer) wearing a black cap, who would have drawn up the wedding contract. The bridegroom himself is absent as the custom was that he could not see his wife until the evening of the wedding. A clergyman – a Franciscan Friar in his hooded robe – is also at the table.

While the guests seem to have plenty to drink – jugs of wine are plentiful – to a modern viewer the most surprising element is the food being served. Porridge may now be regarded as the epitome of spartan misery but is here considered fit for a feast. Bowls of the stodgy comfort food – probably flavoured with saffron because it’s a special occasion – are ferried to guests by waiters carrying a trestle. Entertainment is provided by bagpipe players – still a feature of some weddings today. In the foreground, there’s a child sitting with a porridge bowl licking his fingers. The bride is seen with her hands folded – by custom she was not allowed to eat or drink at her own wedding.

Sotheby’s said Pieter Breughel the Younger had followed his father’s design for the painting faithfully but had added some deft touches and colour of his own including (a thoroughly modern twist this), “introducing an amorous couple into the hayloft directly above” the wedding guests. The original roll in the hay.

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