Let’s be sincere, who of us has never wished for an endless life-long party abundant in delicious food, tasty sweet-stuff, exquisite strong beverages, and sex as a peculiar bonus? Drop the hypocrisy, you’re not alone! Ever since humanity faced shortages and restrictions, it was looking for a place where people have everything in abundance, including meal and pleasures.
Nelli, Niccolò (c. 1530 - 1576 or 1585) "The Land of Cockaigne", 1564 © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Greek writer Lucian of Samosata wrote his "True History" back in II century AD and described a comical paradise full of food, drink, and loose women.
Christians invented Heaven and the Garden of Eden which was not seen by anybody but allegedly existed somewhere on earth. Some even believed that it was visited by Alexander the Great, and thus was placed far to the East, though Dante in his Divine Comedy locates it in the Antipodes, at the tip of the mountain of Purgatory.
In the late 12th century one Goliardic poem in Latin, Carmina Burana 222, mentions the name “Cucania” and speaks about a self-styled 'abbot of Cockaygne' (an abbas Cucaniensis), who presides over drinking and gambling. It gives the descriptions of the two abbeys in Cockaygne, which invert the usual norms of religious life.
The Land of Cockaigne grew in popularity as an escape from the harsh realities of life in the Middle Ages. Variations on the theme appeared across Europe full of new thrilling details under different names: “Cokaygne” (British Isles), “Bengodi” and “Cuccagna” (Italy), “Cocagne” (France), “Jauja” (Spain), “Schlaraffenlan” (Germany), and “Luilekkerland” (the Netherlands).
Remondini family (Bassano), Description of the Land of Cockaigne, Where Whoever Works the Least Earns the Most, 1606, Getty Research Institute.
An Old French poem from the 13th century, Le Fabliau de Cocagne, offered a description of Cokaygne with houses made of food and rivers of milk and beer. Le Fabliau de Cocagne literally means “land of plenty.” Modern French spells it “pays de cocagne” with the same meaning, and also has “vie de cocagne” for a life of pleasure.
A letter to Lucia, venerable abbess of Cokaygne, composed by Henricus de Isernia, a notary at the court of King Ottokar II of Bohemia (1253-78), described a land of milk and honey where no harmful creature could exist, where there was a river, full of jewels, that descended from paradise, and a fountain of youth, and sensual nuns swimming naked in a stream. It was an island where manna rained down from heaven and people desired no other food. It was a land of perfect harmony, no one was poor, and no one was adulterous.
An English poem The Land of Cockaigne written in the early to mid-14th century by a Franciscan friar, possibly in Kildare, satirized the life of monks. The poet accuses the monks of many charges brought against all friars: opulence, gluttony, hedonism, and sexual misconduct.
A Dutch rhyming text from the 15th century called Het Luilekkerland (“the lazy-luscious-land” in English) described The Land of Cockaigne as a mythical place where there is no need to work, and where food and drink were so abundant that we need only open our mouths to take in what we desire.
1.2. Hendrik van der Putte, ca. 1761-1765, Amsterdam
The most renowned paintings depicting The Land of Cockaigne is done by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In his Luilekkerland, Bruegel represents Never-Never Land, where everything is done for the inhabitants and all there is to do is sleep. His targets are gluttony and sloth. The painting recalls his Netherlandish Proverbs.
Loafers and gluttons are at their best in here: the clerk lying on his fur robe, ink and pen at his waist, closed book beside him; the peasant sleeping on his flail; and the soldier with lance and gauntlet lying useless beside him. Some of the remains of their meal are strewn on the table encircling the tree in the center. The clerk gazes at a vessel of wine that probably gives him a drop when he opens his mouth. An egg runs between the clerk and the peasant, it is already half-eaten; the empty eggshells in Bruegel, as in Bosch, are symbolic of spiritual sterility. Behind the sleepers a roast goose lays itself down on a silver platter to be eaten and an appetizing roasted pig wanders about with a knife in its back to make carving easy. To its right a traveller has reached Luikkerland; he has eaten his way through a mountain of pudding and is swinging down with the aid of a conveniently placed tree. The fence at the edge of the sleepers' enclosure is woven out of sausages. The roof of a house to the left is covered with pancakes. And a river at the back gives milk to its travelers on boats.
The print above accurately follows in reverse Bruegel's 1567 painting of the same title. The image carries moralizing intent—to decry the vices of sloth and gluttony. It is apparent from the first part of the Dutch inscription below the engraving: "The lazy and gluttonous farmers, soldiers, and clerks get there and taste all for nothing." Though Bruegel is credited with the inspiration for the design—we see the "P. Bruegel. inventor" appearing in the lower right corner—it is unclear whether the artist was involved in the production of the print. Rather, this work is attributed to Pieter van der Heyden.
There is no sole interpretation of The Land of Cockaigne by Bruegel. Some scholars believe that it politically satirizes the first stages of the Dutch Revolt (1568–1648), others cite the art work as illustration of the Freudian oral stage of psychosexual development, demonstrating how human beings achieve oral pleasure and stimulation from eating and simply having things in the mouth.
1.2. Frans Hogenberg, Sugar banquet for the wedding of John William, Duke of Julich-Cleves-Berg, and Jakobea of Baden, 1587. Getty Research Institute.
The concept of The Land of Cockaigne thrived during the 17th century as symbol of overabundance and excess. In Italy, Cuccagna-inspired festivals were very popular and occurred regularly. They whisked impoverished Italians away from the hardships of daily life and launched them into the hedonistic world of Cockaigne. The celebrations featured elaborate temporary monuments decorated with food—meat, cheese, cakes, breads, and other culinary delights. The destruction of this public art, as people grabbed as much food as they could when climbing Cuccagna trees to get prizes at the very top, was entertainment for the court.
Johann Baptist Homann (1664 - 1724) "Accurata Utopiae Tabula", map of Cockaigne published by Matthäus.
As the time passed by, the humans scrutinized every single piece of land on our planet. Now we know for sure that the Land of Cockaigne does not exist on Earth. There is no strong shortage of food in most developed countries as well. And people are able to choose any pleasures according to their moral and beliefs. Yet, still the concept of the Land of Cockaigne occupies minds of intellectuals, artists and writers.
Michael Shepherd, a famous artist form New Zealand (born 1950, in Hamilton) is "concerned with how imaginative art could deal with social and environmental issues." In his painting he shows the serious impact of ecological imperialism on our social and physical environment. The title of the painting is a homage to Leonard Cockayne, a brilliant scientist, regarded as the greatest botanist and a founder of modern science in New Zealand.
Michael Shepherd, The Land of Leonard Cockayne (after Bruegel), 2009. Acrylic on board, 119 x 158 cm. Image courtesy of Two Rooms Gallery.
Shepherd’s painting consciously parodies Bruegel’s Land of Cockaigne. In this painting a figure has eaten his way into the land of plenty to find the land stripped of vegetation and virtually devoid of life. There is nothing left but death and devastation. All food has vanished from the composition, as well as a house with pancaked roof and a soldier. A clerk's skull lies face down below the tree trunk with skeleton bones scattered, and a broken moa egg lies in the foreground. Only a peasant fell asleep or lying dead? beneath the bare table.
The Shepherd’s limited paint palette of brown and umber reveals a land that is parched and barren. The artist's painting deals obliquely with our on-going depredation of the land, the reverse side of the consumer society soaked with gluttony and debauchery.
Will Cotton (born 1965, in Melrose, Massachusetts) is a popular American artist exploring gluttony, beauty, and desire. As an internationally recognized utopian landscape painter, he depicts seductive female figures languidly posed on landscapes made of sugary desserts: fondant frostings, peppermint sticks, marshmallows, chocolate bars, melting ice cream, and cotton-candy clouds.
The artist explained his art work best himself: "My initial impulse to make these paintings really came out of an awareness of the commercial consumer landscape that we live in. Every day we’re bombarded with hundreds, if not thousands of messages designed specifically to incite desire within us."
Influenced by the Land of Cockaigne in European literature and art, Will Cotton combines attractive females with the world of candies and sweets to finally get all the passions humans crave for in one single place, to create a perfect utopia where every wish can be fulfilled – meaning ultimately that there can be no desire, as there is no desire without the lack of it.
1.2. Jean Dierdorf, Land of Cockaigne (no. 4), Acrylic and Ink on clear mylar, 36x65 inches, 2012. Image copyright Jenn Dierdorf 2016.
Jenn Dierdorf (born 1978, in Michigan City, Indiana) is a Brooklyn-based contemporary graphic female artist that works with configurations of lines, shapes and colours to create enchanting abstract patterns.
She comments, "There are a number of visual qualities my work explores related to abstraction and visibility. I tend to play with the image being on the cusp of being formed/being dissolved. It interests me when the work can provoke feelings of comfort and loss simultaneously.”
In her Land of Cockaigne series we apparently see the full set of holiday attributes: confetti, christmas trees, wedding cakes, a cornucopia overflowing with candies as well as drawings of phallic and bust symbols which definitely form atmosphere of a party and frivolous relations between men and women within a festive land.
Depicting dozens of phallic symbols in her abstract series, Jenn Dierdorf is one of those intrepid female artist who declares equal rights of women for getting pleasures in the Land of Cockaigne.
Vincent Desiderio, Cockaigne. Oil on canvas, 112x153 inches, 1993-2003. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington. D.C.
Inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Land of Cockaigne, Vincent Desiderio (born 1955, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), the famous realist painter spent 10 years creating his masterpiece Cockaigne. He retained Bruegel's leaning table but covered it with a tablecloth splattered with wine stains, bread crumbs, remains of meals and scattered bowls, plates and glasses. But rather than with people, Diesiderio fills his composition with hundreds of meticulously rendered art historical images in a haphazardly scattered array of books and postcards that lie about everywhere. If you take a closer look, you see familiar images by Matisse, Picasso, Vermeer, Velazqueiz, Mondrian, Monet, to name a few. Actually, they cover the period from van Eyck and Masaccio (15th century) to Jasper Johns and Chuck Close (20-21 centuries).
Although the painting looks like the remains of a wild drunken party of librarians in an Academy of Arts, who left books scattered all over the place, it is rather a depiction of overabundance of information which prevails over meal and pleasures nowadays.
Computer technologies changed our priorities, strivings and desires dramatically, although our hunger for fresh news and knowledge carries hidden problems with ability to comprehend and analyze it. Nonetheless, Desiderio denies that the painting carries a pessimistic message. He commented, "I painted the wasteland, transforming it into harvest."
Written by Natalia Korchina on materials by alimentarium.org, thegoldendream.com, metmuseum.org, wga.hu, getty.edu, nccsc.net, tworooms.co.nz, wildevrouw.blogspot.com, redice.tv websites of mentioned contemporary artist and other sources.
Main illustration: Will Cotton, Untitled, 2004, oil on linen, 80 x 120 inches.