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A Christmas card scene that spans the world

Editor’s note: This was originally published on December 24th, 2019

Pieter Bruegel’s memory of deep winter has made Hunters in the Snow a favorite for Christmas cards for decades. But it deserves deeper attention than the single look these cards usually get. The painting is one of the masterpieces of Western art.

Hunters are initially captivated by their formative power. The diagonal sweep – from the hunters on a hill in the foreground to a valley bordered by mountains in the distance – drives us through a wide space delimited by various shades of snow and ice, and floats us above it. A row of bare trees emphasizes the direction of the gaze and the winding river widens our view. On the right, gable roofs near us merge into craggy peaks that are further away, drawing our attention to the many scenes in the center and left.

The use of perspective as a window onto an expanding space characterizes this work as a painting of the Renaissance. Bruegel was born in the 1520s when knowledge of revolutionary developments in Italian art spread throughout the Netherlands. Bruegel’s combination of the formal innovations of the South with the more bourgeois sentiments of the North created a new and distinctive style.

Here the enlarged perspective helps us to take a picture that encompasses the world. Like an epic poem, Hunters in the Snow tries to capture the sum of human life. A poet generally has to resort to digression or parable in order to recall an essential aspect of our condition that cannot be included in the main story. For example, Homer is known to use the images on Achilles’ shield to depict the richness of Greek life beyond the battlefield – weddings, viticulture and even jurisdiction.

In Hunters, Bruegel takes advantage of the visual arts: he integrates the whole of existence by creating a geography that depicts different histories that are close together. The richness of these stories in the painting testifies to Bruegel’s designation as “the farmer” – so it is said. He dressed so that he could better observe everything around him.

Through Bruegel’s gimlet eye, we see the hunter’s spear serving as a staff to bring the game home. The slender bodies of the dogs are reminiscent of generations of breeding to achieve speed. Farther in the distance, church towers point up to the majesty of the mountains beyond. Together, the carefully observed details bring together the elements that made up the world, according to the science of Bruegel’s Day.

Since ancient Greece, philosophers had characterized the universe as fire, water, earth, and air, and medieval alchemy had popularized this theory. All four elements are to be emphasized in the painting – an open fire illuminates the foreground, a pond dominates the center of the picture, and mountains circumscribe our view over the valley and force us to contemplate the airy space within.

But Bruegel is not satisfied with building the contrast between natural elements. The juxtaposition of work with play and age with youth is emphasized. In the foreground, the hunters sneak through the snow and the innkeepers lean over an open fire. Although their faces are not different, these characters are clearly mature in years and responsibilities when compared to the younger, carefree skaters on the ice. Bruegel not only portrays the different ages of man, but also his different epochs. Before Bruegel’s time, hunting had dominated civilization, but by the 16th century agriculture was responsible for most of society’s surplus. It is neatly represented by the water mill even in winter.

Despite the meager reach of the hunters, the glow of the fire and the frolicking of the skaters celebrate a world of relative contentment – even joy. Nevertheless, Bruegel offers another sobering dichotomy. A single dark bird, almost certainly a crow or a raven, hovers over these snowy twilight scenes. Others overlook the view from their place in the trees. These creatures were known to symbolize death because of their black plumage and eating rotten meat.

Bruegel would hardly have noticed such symbolism. While scholars now believe he was a humanist and moderate in today’s teaching controversy, he was steeped in his religious iconography. Bruegel was also directly influenced by his famous Flemish predecessor Hieronymous Bosch, the death-drunk painter in art history. Bosch specialized in the grotesque and satirical in order to turn didactic points into human folly and divine truth. Compared to Bosch, Bruegel combines greater realism with more subtle but purposeful messages about imminent death in the midst of life.

Hunters in the snow are thus a milestone in the strong tradition of the west of Memento Mori. For the Gentile, the knowledge that the joys of life will vanish promotes immediate enjoyment; For the Christian, it underscores the vanity of human enterprise. But whatever morality we choose, this monumental landscape makes us more aware of beauty even in the fading light.

Merry Christmas!

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