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Christmas Theme

Continuing our Christmas theme this week I have included a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder called Hunters in the Snow. It’s one of my favourite paintings. It is a beautiful painting often used for Christmas cards and jigsaws! The painting is oil on panel, painted in 1565 it is in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna, Austria. It’s dimensions are 1.17 m x 1.62 m,
I’d love to see it - I’ve never been to Vienna - one of my ‘to do’ things post lockdown! Here is a description of the painting. ‘The painting shows a wintry scene in which three hunters are returning from an expedition accompanied by their dogs. By appearances the outing was not successful; the hunters appear to trudge wearily, and the dogs appear downtrodden and miserable. One man carries the "meager corpse of a fox" illustrating the paucity of the hunt. In front of the hunters in the snow are the footprints of a rabbit or hare - which has escaped or been missed by the hunters. The overall visual impression is one of a calm, cold, overcast day; the colors are muted whites and grays, the trees are bare of leaves, and wood smoke hangs in the air. Several adults and a child prepare food at an inn with an outside fire. Of interest are the jagged mountain peaks which do not exist in Belgium or Holland. The landscape itself is a flat-bottomed valley (a river meanders through it) with jagged peaks visible on the far side. A watermill is seen with its wheel frozen stiff. In the distance, figures ice skate, play hockey with modern style sticks and curl on a frozen lake; they are rendered as silhouettes. ‘ (Wikipedia) The painting has been meticulously planned and the way that the composition is organised helps us to appreciate what’s going on within the landscape. That’s why I like to know the actual size of pictures as it provides a clue as to how the picture has been composed. Have a look as well at the negative shapes between the dogs and the hunters - and how those shapes help to create movement. Also the figures playing on the iced ponds look like they are from a Lowry painting! ‘The high horizon line suggests that we, the viewer, experience this scene from high above, the same perspective as might be enjoyed by the crows in the foreground trees’ branches. This type of complex view—which combines an interest in human activity with the expansive and commanding vista of a map—defines much of Bruegel’s work. His masterful ability to blend sweeping vistas with intimate portrayals of the human condition, and the mundane with the fantastical, is part of what makes his paintings—including Hunters in the Snow—so enduring. In replicating the world on a scale both large and small he seems to present a mirror to the human condition itself: continuously locked to life’s day to day activities, yet often striving to see the world in all its glory in an instant.’( Dr. David Boffa.) Here is a short video about the painting - note how different the work of the Northern Renaissance artists looks set against their Italian counterparts.

I attach another intriguing and well known Christmas image by Bruegel ‘The Census at Bethlehem.’ The use of colour and general composition and view point is very similar to last weeks painting of The Hunters in the Snow.’

‘In the foreground, a man carrying a carpenter’s saw is followed by a women wrapped in a big blue coat, sitting on a donkey. The image is of Joseph and Mary who have come to Bethlehem to register themselves on the census ordered by Emperor Augustus (Luke 2:1-5). This biblical event is associated with paying taxes. The scene is set in a snowy Brabant village, which brings together /spiritual and temporal considerations. The landscape juxtaposes a ruined building (paganism?) on the right, with the church situated on the other bank (Christianity?) thus linking past and present. The plague house, isolated on the edge of the water, reinforces the collective message of faith.’

Text: Museum of Ancient Art. A Selection of Works, Brussels, 2001, p. 92 © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

I have really enjoyed scrutinising both paintings because there is so much going on. I’m sure that some of the meanings behind the interactions that are going on would have been easily read at the time but they are lost on us. I note also that both paintings are of a similar size and ratio 115.5 x 163.5 against 1.17 m x 1.62 m, and that they are painted on oak panels. I’m still looking at how the ‘golden ratio’ has been used to organise the composition in both works and how the abstract form of the paintings helps us to ‘read’ them.

I have added some more information via the attached link about the Hunters in the Snow painting that I mentioned last week - did you notice the gun being fired in the middle distance?


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