Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Feast of the Bean King and Social Codes

Have you ever thought about social status? What is the correct way to act? Or should sometimes people let loose, like at a party? Does this apply to your office Christmas party? In The Feast of the Bean King (1640/1645), Jacob Jordaens paints a comical presentation of middle-class partygoers in an attempt to provoke the noble classes who are trying to keep the classes separate. Richly colored and including a wealth of detail, The Feast of The Bean King is a painting of men and women at a party celebrating a holiday very much like what happens on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras). In the Bean Feast—the Feast of Epiphany—the person who finds the bean baked into the cake is crowned king. And, the middle class shames the noble class by acting like royalty. 

The older man in the center who wears the crown is the bean king. He holds a pitcher of wine and wears a long bib. Beside him is a beautiful woman dressed in finery. She stares out at the viewer, perhaps wishing the party will soon end. The bare breasted woman above the king may be a prostitute. And, to the far left we see a man kneeling down and vomiting on the floor. Others raise their glasses, laughing, singing, and creating a commotion.  
                                                                 Jacob Jordaens, The Feast of the Bean King, 1640/45
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In The Book of the Cities of Ladies (c. 1405), writer Christine de Pizan discusses how a person should act based on his or her social class. No one of a lower rank should present oneself as royalty and that men and women should dress and act according to their position. Noblewomen would never eat with their servants, nor would they appear with immoral women. But here, for the period of the feast, nothing is as it should be; the social order has collapsed. Through his representation of chaos and excess, Jordaens may be offering a warning about what may happen when social morĂ©s are abandoned. But, he may too be offering a critique of Flemish society and its strict class divisions. 

What makes a noble man different from a merchant? Are the nobility really the virtuous? How do the middle and lower classes provide for society? Should we be judged by our actions? And, given the opportunity, we can all fall to folly. So during this holiday, have fun, but don’t act like an animal, and be safe!

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