BRUEGEL, Pieter the Elder
(b. ca. 1525, Brogel, d. 1569, Brussel)

Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap

Oil on panel, 37 x 55,5 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Bathed in a gentle, suffused light, softened by the snow, a Brabant village sets the scene for the pleasures on the ice. On the far horizon, we can just make out a city enveloped in mist. With its intimate framework, this surprisingly modern little picture is totally different from the panoramas to which Patenier and his followers had accustomed us. The unity of the ivory-toned colours makes this an almost monochrome painting, heralding the Dutch winter scenes of the coming century. The aerial perspective is, however, traditional, conferring a timelessness to the work. The landscape is painted with great freedom: playing with the combined effects of tiny impasti and translucent glazes, the painter has created a dialogue between the opaqueness of the snow and the reflections of the frost, the cold tones of the ice and the dark colours of carefully positioned trees and vegetation. Specialists remain, however, divided on this masterpiece: some believe that Bruegel painted it on his own, others with the help of his workshop. Several versions and numerous copies of this composition exist, some of them as late as the 18th century.

The representations of winter scenes originate in the calendars of the Books of Hours. It may be that the artist is alluding to the winter of 1564-65, which was particularly severe, according to the chroniclers of the time. However, this scene probably contains a deeper meaning, attached to an allegorical interpretation of human existence that was widespread in the 16th century. According to this concept, the devout person is a pilgrim, crossing a life sown with dangers and temptations, which he must avoid in order to arrive at salvation. Hence the bird traps, like the one in the right hand foreground, symbolised in the literature of the time the baits of the devil for careless souls (the bird being traditionally the symbol of the soul). Similarly, artists frequently used skating scenes to express the uncertain (slippery) nature of existence. Skaters and birds meet here in their insouciance and their vulnerability towards the perils facing them. With his at once precise and synthetic vision of the world, the artist has managed to renew this theme with masterly skill.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 11 minutes):
Vivaldi: Concerto in F minor RV 297 op. 8 No. 4 (Winter)