Hunters in the Snow is one of the most evocative paintings of winter. Often regarded as a modern work, it is in fact deeply religious
One of the most evocative paintings of winter is called Hunters in the Snow. Painted by Breugel the Elder in 1565 it belongs to a series of which five works still survive. In the genre of Labours of the Months, the whole series straddles the medieval period with that of the Renaissance. However, it does so in several ways.
Looking at the painting hanging in the Vienna, we are immediately met with a sense of foreboding. To the utmost left is a small group of burghers who are apparently busy with burning straw. They are obviously about to singe and scrape a boar, intended to feed the family through the winter. This is no happy scene, though. It is as if in a moment the whole place will be torched, because the fire has been placed much too close to the entrance.
This scene is set outside a small inn. A crooked sign, which have fallen off one of its hooks, tells us that “Dit is Guden Hert”, telling us that the tavern is under the protection of St. Hubert, who – when he hunted on Good Friday – saw a crucifix between the antlers of a stag. Thus converted, he became not only bishop of Liège in AD 708, but also patron saint of hunters, mathematicians, opticians and metalworkers.
Further to the right, our eyes move on to the group of hunters, which dominate the painting. Weary and cold, they wade through the new snow followed by a pack of shivering dogs. One of the hunters is wearing a heavy leather coat, while the other is fitted out with a red woollen tunic, mittens of fur and an extra pair of (leather?) hoses covering his lower legs. Accompanied by a pack of greyhounds, bloodhounds, and several smaller terriers or spaniels, these people are not noble hunters, but simple men, who have gone hunting for whatever they might meet up with – boar, fowls, dear, rabbit . Not a very successful hunt, it appears, because the animal slung at the back of one of the hunters is a scruffy fox. Perhaps a couple of grouses or partridges can be found in the bag, the hunter in the foreground is carrying, but that is all.
Further to the right In the lower corner we see the river is frozen, the mill is standing still and firewood is being “stolen” from a tree, which is just standing dormant.
Further behind are of course the frosty scenes, which most art historians consider a comment to the severe winters – the Little Ice Age – which set in around the time Bruegel painted his masterpiece. Here we find the amusing scenes of presumably innocent children and grown-ups skating, playing hockey or curling.
However, if we take the time to gaze long enough, we will also see people in the background running towards a farm carrying ladders in order to get on to the roof to put out a chimney fire. Here – near the vanishing point – the playful afternoon scene of children enjoying the frozen river, turns into a bleak landscape of blatant cold horror.
This painting is not an allegory. In this sense it is truly modern. What you see is what you get. But if we are patient and attentive towards this painting, so much more is revealed.
This is of course not a new observation. Early Netherlandish painters offer us numerous examples of works, which encompass multitudes of small and somewhat mute scenes spread out in landscapes and vast sceneries. In these, we are obviously invited to take part in more or less gentle walks through the landscapes, studying and reflecting upon what we meet on our way.
In this manner the painting must be said to truly medieval. It is as if “Hunters in the Snow” mimicks late medieval spiritual art meant to evoke endless contemplation. These vignettes simply invite us to immerse ourselves in a form of lectio divina. Although the text perused in this way is not a biblical text but a series of small vignettes laid out along painterly lines and winterly lanes, we are indeed invited by Breugel to read, meditate, pray and contemplate winter as a narrative of human foolishness and cold despair.
The story of the Hunters in the Snow is simply – as Falkenburg have argued so vividly – the story of people, living in a vast winterly landscape, who have lost sight of Christ hanging precariously above the sign of the inn.
Some might of course claim that the sign is hanging exactly thus, because Bruegel wished to indicate that the mundane simple lives of peasants no longer experienced the need of the protection of the old church. Set free, they were now wholly on their own.
But it is – considering the full oeuvre of Breugel – much more likely that he had another agenda. This is a cold bleak world in which Christ is left hanging by the fingertips, while people go blindly about their lives: lightening fires too close for comfort to the entrance of their home; going hunting with weary eyes and no particular plan for anything, which might feed the belly; cutting off the branches and twigs from a still standing tree; playing hockey and going skating as if there were no care in the world; and then – in the end – experiencing the most horrid fear of it all: a burned-out home.
No wonder, we begin our perusal of the painting with a sense of foreboding. Cold comfort and divine punishment is all that awaits us poor sinners, who are spiritually blind towards the fundamental eschatology unfolding in front of our eyes.
 Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow. By Alastair Fowler
In: Notes in the History of Art (2014), Vol. 34, No. 1 pp. 9 – 15
Pieter Bruegel’s Series of the seasons in the perception of divine order.
By Reindert L. Falkenburg
In: Liber amicorum Raphaël de Smedt. Ed. by Joost vand der Auwera. Leuven 2001, pp. 253 -75.
Psychocultural Aspects of weather and Place: The Little Ice Age.
In: Phenomenology of the Winter-City. Myth in the Rise and Decline of Built Environments. By Abraham Akkerman. Springer Verlag, 2016, pp. 81 – 90.
Hunters in the Snow (Winter). Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Google Cultural Institute/the Google Art Project. The painting is in the collection of the Art Historical Museum in Vienna in Austria.