Winter was not always beautiful. Until Pieter Bruegel painted Hunters in the Snow, the long bitter months had never been transformed into a thing of beauty. This documentary charts how mankind’s ever-changing struggle with winter has been reflected in western art throughout the ages, resulting in images that are now amongst the greatest paintings of all time. With contributions from Grayson Perry, Will Self, Don McCullin and many others, the film takes an eclectic group of people from all walks of life out into the cold to reflect on the paintings that have come to define the art of snow and ice.
See more The Art of Snow and Ice
- Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow by Rachel-Anne Johnson
It is a bleak winter’s day as the hunters return to the village. The dogs are weary, though the hunters’ catch is meager. Outside an inn, peasant women stoke a large fire, as a man brings a wooden table outside, both activities in preparation for the singeing of a fattened pig whose meat will be stored for the long winter months. In the town below, a woman hauls firewood across a snow-laden bridge while across the pond, a cart, fully loaded with wood and kindling, makes its way through the village. In contrast to these labors that must be completed to survive the season, the majority of the villagers are making the most of the day on frozen ponds at the foot of the hill, skating, curling, and playing hockey. Beyond them, in the distance, jagged cliffs cut through the frozen flats, shielding a riverside town from the onslaught of snow that presses in from the right. On the edge of this town, the river is frozen over, and figures venture on foot and with carts from its frozen banks.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow of 1565 is an imaginative and thought-provoking image of a winter’s day. It was produced as part of a series of landscapes that depict the seasons of the year, often referred to as the Months, which also includes The Gloomy Day (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna), Haymaking (Lobkowicz Palace, Prague Castle, Prague), The Harvesters (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and Return of the Herd (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna).
Spring: The Gloomy Day
Late summer: The Harvesters
Autumn: The Return of the Herd
Winter: The Hunters in the Snow
On one level, Hunters in the Snow depicts the traditional labors for the months of December and January. In medieval prayer books, calendar illuminations depicted the labors and activities appropriate to certain times of year. December was characterized by singeing the pig and January by hunting motifs, conventions that were well- established by the sixteenth century and present in almost every illuminated manuscript from the Bruges workshop of Simon Bening, the most likely precedent for seasonal imagery with which Bruegel would have been familiar.
Bruegel includes different aspects of hunting in the image by depicting the group of hunters and dogs in the foreground, the inn that they pass on the left whose sign references St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters, and a bird-trap in the left middleground.
The slaughter of a pig is a conventional motif for December, while singeing the pig is typical for January. Though no pig is present in Bruegel’s winter landscape, this progression of activity is suggested by the large fire on the left and the man carrying the table outside, which could represent the next stage – quartering the animal.
On another level, however, there is much more going on in Bruegel’s image than these traditional activities, and the composition raises a number of questions regarding how contemporary viewers would have understood Hunters in the Snow. Why at this time does Bruegel monumentalize a typically small-format genre? Hunters in the Snow measures 46 in. x 64 in., compared with a calendar illumination that rarely would have been larger than 6 in. x 5 in. Why do so many figures and motifs diverge from the conventions of previous calendar illustrations? The traditional labors are subtle and peripheral in relation to the entire image. Why the elaborate detail and unconventional motifs within images that were traditionally formulaic in subject matter? And, ultimately, how were these elements meant to be understood at the time, in their original context?
In an attempt to explain Bruegel’s elaborations and monumental scale, most scholars have situated Bruegel’s series of the Months firmly within the realm of world- landscapes. In this artistic tradition, landscapes were constructed to embody a cosmic significance, connecting the seasons and their activities to a higher order of religious providence and celestial harmony. The labors of the seasons reflect an order to the world that is both cyclical and divinely ordained. Another branch of scholarship takes the world-landscape characteristics of Bruegel’s Months and attaches to them the conventional devotional practices of the medieval calendar tradition and the use of religious symbols that one sees in the work of the Flemish landscape painter Joachim Patinir.
To these interpretations, discussed further below, this essay argues for another crucial element in understanding the original context of Hunters in the Snow, which is that the image, and its fellow panels from Bruegel’s series of the Months, are descriptive of Antwerp’s suburbs specifically, rather than merely monumentalized calendar illustrations of seasonal activity based on the prescribed models of medieval sources. It is, like many other images from Bruegel’s oeuvre, a localized genre painting – a scene from everyday life that derives its meaning from the perception of familiar objects or activity within it. Bruegel’s personal experience of Antwerp’s countryside has been noted as a possible factor in the creation of landscapes like Hunters in the Snow, but only in general terms, and without regard to the experience of the panel’s original audience. The artist’s inclusion of local and historical elements, common to all five of Bruegel’s Months, contribute to the images’ function as visual chorographical narratives, or descriptions offering an embodied perspective of a region (choros), stressing local details and characteristics. This perspective is uniquely experiential in its depiction of local agricultural activity, the connection of landscape elements, travel, local economic interests, and idiosyncratic details of life in and around 1560s Antwerp. This interpretive framework takes into account the original suburban location of Hunters in the Snow and an ensemble of motifs that would have been recognized by its original owner, Niclaes Jongelinck, as referring to Antwerp itself and his own role in the city’s social fabric.
The goal of this essay, then, is the reconciliation of the secular and spiritual understandings of Hunters in the Snow, and the entire series of the Months by extension, demonstrating that its contemporary audience would have extrapolated meaning from the image by drawing on both local knowledge and experience of Antwerp’s countryside, and a spiritual understanding of the motifs Bruegel includes based on the artistic traditions from which they derive. The precedents of medieval calendars and the world-landscape tradition provide a spiritual context for Bruegel’s landscapes and the localized details within them provide the means by which their original viewers inferred significance from them. It is through the recognition of the familiar and the knowledge of artistic precedents that meaning emerges. Ultimately, these elements work together to reveal the perception of a landscape of providence – both the divine providence of God and nature, and the local providence of the region of Antwerp as it goes about its seasonal labors.
Hunters in the Snow as a World-Landscape
Although scholars have acknowledged that Bruegel’s series of the Months can be seen as “faithful transcription[s] of the countryside,”x and thus an appropriate comparison to a chorographic view of the region around Antwerp, there seems to be a tendency to pass over chorographical considerations in favor of placing the landscapes within the larger, geographical context of world-landscapes. It seems that because the series has traditionally been called Months, and cycles of seasonal motifs were meant to be nearly universal in their application, one is immediately inclined to think of these images in the same context. Svetlana Alpers, in The Art of Describing, uses the categories of cartography, or map-making, to place Bruegel’s work within the confines of the world-landscape genre:
We might also want to use mapping terms to distinguish the larger geographical ambitions of Bruegel’s Season landscapes from the specific chorographic concerns of his drawings of the Ripa Grande or the painting of the Bay of Naples…By combining the traditional themes of the seasons with an extensive mapped view of the earth, Bruegel gives the yearly cycle a world rather than a local dimension...xi
Alpers differentiates images like Hunters in the Snow from works like Naval Battle in the Bay of Naples (1558-62), arguing that we do not have a specific topographical location to connect with the former as we do the latter. Furthermore, because Bruegel composed Hunters in the Snow using a bird’s-eye perspective of the winter scene, the viewer is set apart from the image, asked to contemplate it with a particular detachment from an impossible vantage-point. This view, as Walter Gibson has described it, is “truly cosmic in scope, showing the great forces of nature playing over immense portions of the earth’s surface, as they “subordinat[e] the world of the peasant to the much vaster world of nature.” The implications of the world-landscape context, thus, also apply to the human activity within Hunters in the Snow, suggesting that the overarching view of reality presented in this image is that nature and cosmic forces determine the activities of the everyday. Furthermore, Gibson connects Bruegel’s view of nature, and the peasants subordinate position within it, to Virgil’s Georgics, a classical poem that moves from the “mundane details of farming and cattle-breeding to rhapsodic descriptions of the celestial constellations and the great meteorological forces affecting the world.”xiv In these interpretations, then, Bruegel is presenting a view of reality that is shaped by the cosmos – a world that is not lived-in, but looked-upon.
Hunters in the Snow as a Devotional Image
One way in which a viewer might look upon such a world is with an eye for spiritual perception. Medieval books of hours, where the conventional labors of the months were first codified and presented within a devotional context, depicted the activities of each season under the divinely ordained cycles of both the cosmos and the church. These books directed their readers through devotions that were to be done at certain times of the day and on particular holy days throughout the year, complementing each devotional text with illustrations of the agricultural and leisure activities that marked such times. The illustrations were most often juxtaposed with zodiac imagery or celestial maps, emphasizing the cosmic structure that dictated the labors shown beneath them.
The labors are further contextualized by the inclusion of details pertinent to the patron or owner of a particular book of hours. In the case of the Tres Riches Heures of Jean, the Duke of Berry, the activities in the calendar illustrations take place not only beneath the zodiac signs and a star map, but also in the shadow of the duke’s palaces, depicted as accurate portraits in the background of many of the illuminations. In this way, the spiritual meaning of seasonal labor within a divine and cosmic cycle is focused for the book’s reader through the association with recognizable places. Similarly, in Hunters in the Snow, the labors and activities presented are subordinate to the broad landscape that suggests the region of Antwerp. Though the celestial and zodiac imagery are no longer present in the Months, Bruegel retains the idea of attaching familiar places to the activities depicted. Jongelinck’s world, like the duke’s in the Tres Riches Heures, looms over and around the seasons that Bruegel depicts.
The way in which this spiritual mode of perception may have functioned in regard to Hunters in the Snow is argued by Reindert Falkenburg, who discusses the series, not only in terms of its composition and vantage-point, but in terms of small, religious motifs that connect Bruegel’s work with that of Patinir and others, who used large-scale landscapes to frame biblical scenes. Similar to the way in which the world-landscape tradition encourages a detached evaluation from the viewer, Falkenburg suggests that Bruegel’s series encouraged devotional contemplation, much closer in function to the medieval calendar illustrations of the seasons described above. The engagement of the viewer, who is put in the position of exploring the paintings to find the small vignettes, is the key to understanding how sight leads to insight in these images. In this interpretation, we move from an elevated meditation on the cosmos, to a more interactive relationship with the image itself.
Within Hunters in the Snow, Falkenburg points to various details that implicate both the figures in the image and the viewer of the image on a spiritual level. He begins by considering the sign above the inn depicted in the left foreground of the panel, which reads, “Dit is inden Hert” (translated as “This is in the Stag”).
The sign also displays a rough image of St. Hubert dropping to his knees in front a large stag. St. Hubert was the patron saint of hunters because he converted to Christianity after being shown a vision of the cross in the antlers of a stag. Falkenburg connects this sign and the reference to St. Hubert to the fact that it appears that the only catch the hunters return with is a single fox and, thus, any appeal the hunters may have made to the patron saint was not terribly effective. The author suggests that this is Bruegel’s way of showing that the meager catch is a result of the hunters not having St. Hubert properly in their hearts and that the figures of the hunters, looking down at their feet as they pass by the inn, function as negative examples for the viewer. They go about their labors without regard to the sign at the inn or that which it represents; they are spiritually blind to their patron saint and, by extension, oblivious to the revelation of Christ indicated in the sign’s portrayal of St. Hubert’s vision of the cross.xix The viewer of the image, if focused on exploring the painted terrain while ignoring the spiritual signs (and the inn’s actual sign), is implicated alongside the distracted hunters and their consequent meager spoils. Consequently, the viewer’s spiritual mode of perception reads these motifs as reminders to acknowledge the role of divine providence in the labors of the seasons. Perhaps, as some commentators have proposed, Bruegel shows himself here a “honest humorist” by suggesting that their scant catch results from not having St.Hubert “inden hert”: in their heart.
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- The Numbering at Bethlehem
The painting shows a Flemish village in winter at sundown. A group of people is gathered at a building on the left. A sign bearing the Habsburg double-headed eagle is visible on the building. Other people are making their way to the same building, including the figures of Joseph and the pregnant Virgin Mary on a donkey.
A pig is being slaughtered. People are going about their daily business in the cold, children are shown playing with toys on the ice and having snowball fights. At the very centre of the painting is a spoked wheel, sometimes interpreted as being a reference to the wheel of fortune.
To the right, a man in a small hut is shown holding a clapper, a warning to keep away from leprosy. Leprosy was endemic in that part of Europe when the painting was created. There is a begging bowl in front of the hut. As he often did, Bruegel treats a biblical story, here the census of Quirinius, as a contemporary event. And once again, reference to particular political events has been adduced – in this case, the severity of the Spanish administration in the southern Netherlands. However, Bruegel may well be making a more general criticism of bureaucratic methods.
The events depicted are described in Luke 2, 1-5:
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered… So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.
Towers and gates of Amsterdam.by Pieter Bruegel the Elder