This bizarre little carving adorns the choir screen at the Church of Saint Bavo in Haarlem (not to be confused with Saint Bavo Cathedral, also in Haarlem). I thought it was just an artist’s whimsy. Nope! There’s more meaning than that.
After the church, we went to the Frans Hals Museum. One of the non-Frans Hals (and non-pickled-herring-related) things we saw there was this painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. It was a copy of his father’s work, Netherlandish Proverbs.
There are about a billion different adages illustrated in the painting (check the Wikipedia page). The bit we’re interested is down in the lower left. Comparing it to the toothy fellow up top chewing on the church, we can see that he is a “pillar biter,” or religious hypocrite. Probably not a concept you’d see showcased in a Catholic church at the time, but certainly in a Protestant one.
Looking at that list, I’m pretty amused by “the herring does not fry here,” meaning “this is not going according to plan.” And “He who eats fire, craps sparks” is so much more evocative than simply “playing with fire.” Which is your favorite?