Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


Nature is omnipresent in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's oeuvre.
As the seasons pass, the painter makes an effort to depict the finest details of nature.

Winter holds a particularly important place in his compositions. To such an extent that Bruegel is considered to be the creator of a pictorial tradition which would become extremely popular in Holland over the following century: the painting of winter landscapes.

CHAPTER 1. A metaphor for passing time

In 1565, Bruegel embarked on the creation of a masterful Cycle of the Seasons for the Antwerp trader and collector Nicolas Jongelinck.
Five works from this series have survived the passing centuries: Gloomy Day, The Return of the Herd and The Hunters in the Snow (all three of which are kept at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna), The Corn Harvest (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and Haymaking (Nostitz collection).

What strikes the viewer is the almost unrivalled attention given to non-idealised nature, without reference to iconology religious or otherwise.
This series, a metaphor for passing time, marks a turning point in western art history.

The Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap, is contemporary to the Cycle of the Seasons, carried out in the same year of 1565.

Held at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, this composition, in a more modest format, is a true masterpiece in the history of Flemish landscapes.

Myriam Dom, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, talks about the role of winter in Pieter Bruegel's oeuvre.

At this time (between 1562 and 1566) the Low Countries, in the middle of the Little Ice Age, experienced several particularly cold and harsh winters. Such winters had a significant impact on people, including artists such as Bruegel the Elder.

Most of his snowy landscapes were in fact painted around 1565. Like this Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, where the painter goes as far as to depict the snowflakes falling from the sky.

In The Winter Landscape, the Flemish master's technical virtuosity means he is able to reproduce all the subtleties and nuances of snowy landscapes...

frozen areas calling out for people to have fun...

and magnificent winter skies.

It is above all the harmony of colours that characterises the master's originality. Using yellow hues Bruegel manages to render the golden hint of the cold winter light.

All the white tones used by the artist make the work almost monochrome.

Philippe Roberts-Jones, former chief curator at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, goes as far as to see the work as an impressionist piece before its time.

"Here Bruegel proves his innovative mind in a new genre: approaching the world through what makes it visible, the phenomenon of light. What we would one day call impressionism has found its first origins."

Bruegel enthusiasts are not wrong. Nor is the art market: numerous copies of the panel would later be made. There are no fewer than 140 known examples, making this Bruegel's most popular work.

Numerous versions were made by Pieter Brueghel the Younger who set about copying the works that made his father successful in minute detail. He alone is thought to have painted around 50 such copies.

The Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap is not the only one of his father's snowy scenes that Pieter Brueghel the Younger would copy.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium also hold this Massacre of the Innocents in their collection, another example of a winter landscape produced by Bruegel's son.

In the original composition, also from 1565, Bruegel the Elder provides a fresh take on a biblical tale in which an order is given by King Herod to kill all the boys of less than two years old around Bethlehem as he fears the arrival of the new King of the Jews, Jesus.

This event is represented in a 16th century winter landscape. Bruegel is even thought to have slipped in several references to contemporary political and religious affairs from the Southern Low Countries, gripped at the time by the Iconoclastic Fury between Catholics and Protestants.

Another example of a winter landscape copied by Bruegel's son, this version of The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, depicted without snowflakes.

CHAPTER 2. A myriad of anecdotal details

These winter scenes are often accompanied by a litany of picturesque and anecdotal details depicted with tenderness and humour by Bruegel.
Far from moping around due to the glacial cold and withdrawing inside, the inhabitants are taking full advantage of the joys of winter.
In this The Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap under a heavy blanket of snow, the villagers are enjoying themselves skating.

Myriam Dom, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, talks about the way Bruegel plays with contrast in The Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap.

In such cold times, while the boats remained rigid and stationary, prisoners caught in the ice, ice skating became the sport of choice in Brabant.

In this The Winter Landscape, the viewer can thus see couples whirling about the ice in pairs.

While others play with pucks and sticks, a game we would now call ice hockey.

To the side, children are playing with spinning tops.

Encircling the stretch of frozen water, the thatched cottages of the village are all covered with a heavy blanket of snow.

In the heart of the village, the church steeple dominates the scene. Some have recognised it as the Church of Sint-Anna-Pede in Pajottenland, south-east of Brussels. Bruegel had been living in Brussels for two years by this time. He journeyed across the Walloon region and delighted in joining village feasts which he would depict many times in his paintings.

CHAPTER 3. The hidden meanings of Bruegel's Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap

In the foreground, about the same size as the village people playing on the ice, two black crows overhang the scene, perched up in the branches.

They are a transition point between the skaters and the scene which fills the whole of the right-hand area of the painting.

In this area, birds peck at seeds, unaware of the wooden trap teetering just above their heads.

In the harsh Brabant winters, even small birds were tempting prey.

The wooden plank rests on a branch which it is attached to a string. When we let our eyes follow the trap, one soon realises that it goes as far as the window of a nearby house. Once pulled, the string will make the plank fall crushing the birds, unaware of the danger, trapped underneath.

Myriam Dom, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, reveals the symbolism in The Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap.

Thus, Bruegel introduces a hidden meaning into his work. A sort of warning against the dangers of thoughtlessness and human temptation.

A reminder of the trap metaphor is echoed by the hole in the ice at the edge of the painting, while the villagers skate dangerously close to it also unaware of the impending danger.

The ice itself, which reflects the sky in ochre yellow hues, symbolises the slippery, uncertain nature of existence.

Despite the joys of winter, Bruegel has hidden a moral message here: life, like ice, is dangerous and slippery. We are never safe from the risk of falling, getting hurt or worse.

The Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap, like the other winter scenes painted by Bruegel, is a decidedly innovative piece. Down the following decades, these snowy representations would give birth to a pictorial tradition in its own right. Hendrick Avercamp (born in Amsterdam in 1585) would be one of the principal/main proponents. Far from being solely contemplative, Bruegel the Elder's winter landscapes often contain a hidden meaning. Beyond the different possible levels of interpretation, these snowy landscapes are above all incredibly lively works, illustrating the cultural mores and customs of 16th century Brabant.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
Credits: Story

Jennifer Beauloye

Joost Vander Auwera

-Christina Currie & Dominique Allart, The Brueg(H)el Phenomenon, Brussels, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, 2012.
-Manfred Sellink, Bruegel : L'oeuvre complet, Peintures, dessins, gravures, Gand, Ludion, 2007.
-Peter van den Brink (dir.), L'entreprise Brueghel, Gand Ludion, 2001.

Véronique Bücken, Joost Vander Auwera, Myriam Dom, Laurent Germeau, Pauline Vyncke, Lies van de Cappelle, Karine Lasaracina, Isabelle Vanhoonacker‎, Gladys Vercammen-Grandjean, Marianne Knop‎.

© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels
© D-Sidegroup
© KHM-Museumsverband, Wien
© Collection Oskar Reinhart « Am Römerholz », Winterthour
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : J. Geleyns / Ro scan

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