A Christmas Card Scene Encompassing the World

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

Hunters first captivates through its power of form. The diagonal sweep—from the hunters on a hill in the foreground, sloping to a populated valley bounded by mountains in the distance—propels us through a vast space demarcated by different shades of snow and ice and suspends us above it. A line of bare trees accentuates the direction of sight, and the winding river extends our gaze. On the right, gabled rooftops near us blend into craggy peaks farther away, focusing our attention on the many scenes at the center and left.

The use of perspective as a window onto a widening space marks this work as a painting of the Renaissance. Bruegel was born in the 1520s when knowledge of revolutionary developments in Italian art was spreading to the Netherlands. Bruegel’s marriage of the formal innovations of the South with the more bourgeois sensibilities of the North created a new and distinctive style.

Here the enlarging perspective helps us take in a picture that encompasses the world. Like an epic poem, Hunters in the Snow seeks to capture the sum of human life.A poet must generally resort to digression or simile to memorialize some essential aspect of our condition that cannot be contained within the main story line. Famously, for instance, Homer uses the images on Achilles’ shield to depict the richness of Greek life beyond the battlefield—weddings, viniculture, and even jurisprudence.

In Hunters, Bruegel exploits an advantage of the pictorial arts: he integrates the whole of existence by creating a geography depicting proximate, disparate stories.The richness of these stories in the painting attests to Bruegel’s appellation as “the peasant”—it is said that he dressed down, the better to observe everything around him.

Through Bruegel’s gimlet eye, we see how the hunter’s spear doubles as a rod to bring home the game. The lean bodies of the hounds recall generations of breeding for speed. Farther in the distance, church steeples point upwards to the majesty of the mountains beyond. Together, the carefully observed particulars unite the elements that constituted the world, according to the science of Bruegel’s day.

Since ancient Greece, philosophers had characterized the universe as comprising fire, water, earth, and air, and the alchemy of the middle ages had popularized this theory. In the painting all four elements are prominent—an open fire illuminates the foreground, a pond dominates the center of the picture, and mountains circumscribe our view beyond the valley, compelling us to contemplate the airy space within it.

But Bruegel is not content with setting up the opposition of natural elements. Highlighted is the juxtaposition of work with the play and age with youth. In the foreground the hunters slog through the snow and innkeepers bend over an open fire. Although their faces are not distinct, these figures are clearly mature in years and responsibilities, in comparison to the younger, carefree skaters on the ice.  Bruegel portrays not only the different ages of man, but also his different eras.   Before Bruegel’s time, hunting had dominated civilization, but by the sixteenth century, agriculture was responsible for most of society’s surplus. It is neatly represented even in winter by the watermill.

Despite the meager haul 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 one more sobering dichotomy. A single dark bird, almost certainly a crow or raven soars above these snowy scenes in the gloaming. Others survey the view from their perch in the trees. These creatures were well known to symbolize death, because they are plumed in black and eat rotting flesh.

Bruegel would hardly have been unaware of such symbolism. While scholars now think he was a humanist and moderate in the doctrinal controversies of the day, he was steeped in its religious iconography. Bruegel was also directly influenced by his illustrious Flemish predecessor Hieronymous Bosch, the most death-drunk painter in the history of art. Bosch specialized in the grotesque and satirical to make didactic points on human folly and divine truth. Compared to Bosch, Bruegel combines greater realism with more subtle yet pointed messaging about the imminence of death in the midst of life.

Hunters in the Snow thus stands as a landmark in the West’s powerful tradition of memento mori. To the pagan, the recognition that the pleasures of life will disappear encourages immediate enjoyment; to the Christian, it underscores the vanity of human enterprise. But whatever moral we choose to take, this monumental landscape makes us more attentive of beauty even in the fading light.

Merry Christmas!

Reader Discussion

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on December 24, 2015 at 17:26:17 pm

"Merry Christmas to our readers who celebrate!"

And even to those who don't. Let us all accept each others felicitations in the spirit in which they are offered.

Merry Christmas to you, Professor.

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on December 24, 2015 at 17:33:17 pm

Good grief! A great post opened and carried with civic well-being then ruined with closing controversy.

What's wrong with Merry Christmas?

Let the readers who will invoke controversy.

It's your blog, but it could promote civic dialog.

My home is filled with laughter, good cheer, shared duties, great smells, anticipation of guests. I was taking a break from shelling and de-veining shrimp with New Orleans jazz Christmas music in the den and imagined a fun, classic read.

Maybe someday.

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Phil Beaver
on December 24, 2015 at 18:14:27 pm


At long last we are in agreement.

Herewith my felicitations:

Merry Christmas to you and all yours! (and finish the shrimp and have some wine).

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on December 24, 2015 at 19:49:25 pm

Gabe--You have persuaded me and I have made my last line line shorter as a result: Merry Christmas!

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John O. McGinnis
on December 25, 2015 at 14:00:36 pm

Thanks for a very enlightening essay, and a Merry Christmas to you sir.

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Peter Gee
on December 25, 2015 at 22:39:56 pm

Thanks, John. What is on the sign just over the fire on our left? I hope you'll write on Schlaraffenland, the Land of Milk and Honey, one of my favorites. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Land_of_Cockaigne_(Bruegel)
I would assert that this painting must be understood in the context of his other seasons paintings.

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Ken Masugi
on December 26, 2015 at 13:19:49 pm

"In Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow the arrangement of the hunters relative to the image on the sign of the inn is similar. Their bowed heads, their gazes fixed to the snow-covered ground, signal their blindness to their patron saint, and indirectly point to the theme of Christ's appearance and revelation,which is the subject of crude painting on the inn's sign. The ultimate "image partner" of the hunters is therefore Christ: it is he whom they don't have in their hearts. What gives the viewer visual support for this reading is the slanted position of the sign: in itself it signals negligence, disregard for Christ, and spiritual blindness, that reign in this corner of the world." from Reindert Falkenberg's "PB's Series of the Seasons" on academia.edu. H/t Phil Costopoulos.

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Ken Masugi
on December 24, 2019 at 08:58:56 am

A perceptive reading of the painting. But do "church steeples point upwards to the majesty of the mountains beyond"? Or does the painter suggest in this representation, as in other of his paintings, that the institution of the church (not the ideal, but the manifest) is as icy, remote and indifferent as is "cold" nature itself to all the lean-and-hungry human experiences? And note, too, the ominous implication of iterating the dark bird images in the avian-like figures of the innocent ice-skating children.

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on December 24, 2019 at 10:04:24 am

Lovely read and from a constitutional law professor unexpected art history and criticism. Thank you for your work.

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on December 24, 2019 at 11:04:19 am

another triumph by the vastly superior Western Christian Civilization. Thank you,giants of civilization

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sancho panzo
on December 24, 2019 at 15:00:50 pm

Thank you, Bill78749, for refreshing my appreciation of and for this paining. Your comments suggest that the church is a ruinous imposition onto actual-reality. Your comments connect RWE's "Divinity School Address," 1838.

Emerson wrote about Jesus "One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, 'I am divine. Through me, God acts, through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.'"

And ". . . churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes. Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before. He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man's life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the man is diviner. But the very word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression, it is Monster."

From these observations and experiences I suggest that every human has the individual energy, power, and authority (HIPEA) to develop integrity to the-literal-truth rather than infidelity.

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Phillip Beaver
on December 24, 2019 at 17:08:29 pm

Well, it is Christmas and as many parents are prone to do, they give little horses to their children, even rambunctious and tiresome children. thus, I suspect that someone, possibly acting "in loco parentis" has provided Mr Beaver with another "hobby horse"; his previous one having been worn to tatters and shreds by overuse.
Thus, we may expect more of Mr Beavers tiresome tirades against those with a religious sensibility as he heroically pursues the LITERAL TRUTH, power, integrity AND, no doubt not unlike an earlier era Clark Kent / Superman, the American Way.

Mr Beaver, remember use the Hobby Horse sparingly; overuse may tend to cause excessive and premature wear!

Happy Festivus to you as it is apparent you have evolved well beyond Christmas and the "Mythus (sic) of Church.

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on December 24, 2019 at 17:38:40 pm

"A single dark bird, almost certainly a crow or raven soars above these snowy scenes in the gloaming"

I am going to have to disagree with you on this: the flying bird's tail is not one of a crow or a raven.

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on December 24, 2019 at 19:01:36 pm

[…] celebrate what I hope will be a very happy Christmas, try reading this celebration of winter in art (in this case the truly great Peter Brueghel the Elder), and here’s a […]

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Merry Christmas, 2019 – The Knife and me
on December 24, 2019 at 20:38:32 pm

GP&B brought me back to discover my typo "paining" instead of "painting." Sorry about that yet I find it ironic.

People are pained not by my attention to the U.S. Preamble's proposition, but by its message: five public disciplines can empower responsible human liberty. It's akin to equity under statutory justice, a noble goal.

I accept my interpretation of the U.S. Preamble and am glad I have one. Many fellow citizens have not discovered "ourselves and our Posterity."

Also, for readers other than misleading Guttenburgs Press and Brewery, Emerson wrote "Christianity became a Mythus."

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Phillip Beaver
on December 24, 2019 at 20:56:49 pm

Not sure your reply was in the true spirit of Christmas, Gutten, but it was pretty funny.
Gloria in excelsis Deo!

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on December 24, 2019 at 21:02:42 pm

Concur, and was going to point out the same thing.
As a bird guy, no European bird jumps out at me as looking much like that and it is very different from the obvious crows/ravens elsewhere in the painting.
Looks more like a dragon than a bird, which would certainly be even more symbolic than a crow.

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on December 24, 2019 at 22:13:13 pm

I like your “true spirit” point and the fun you had with a silly post. Harvard banned Emerson for 30 years following Divinity School Address.

Speaking of spirit, years ago I published an answer to the Santa myth some parents impose on their children. My Christian friends liked my essay, and it is accessible at Google Chrome search ""santa" means goodwill toward everyone." I also think it’s erroneous to teach children to think the sun’ll come out tomorrow when it is as easy to say the earth’s rotation will un-hide the sun tomorrow.

Some Christians, unaware of John 15:18-23, practice civic integrity with non-Christian fellow citizens. They share the people’s proposition offered in the U.S. Preamble. It exclude religion from the 5 civic disciplines, perhaps leaving spiritualism as a private, adult pursuit according to responsible human liberty. These American principles are un-British, and that may be the challenge: freedom from colonial-British psychology.

Other Christians hate non-believers even though they have not read John 15. I am not among the elect and reject John’s hate. There’s no excuse for “scripture” of hate. I doubt John represented Jesus and think John rebuked whatever-God-is.

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Phillip Beaver
on December 28, 2019 at 15:05:51 pm

This is a wonderful piece on a masterpiece. I simply enjoyed reading it. Thank you for it. I am adapting the message at the end for a Sunday School class on Ecclesiastes.

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Dan Beck
on December 29, 2019 at 15:32:05 pm

1. The tree perching birds are shown with stubby tails rather than with fine long corvidly primaries. Still, if intended to be corvids they would be not crows, thus C. monedula (Jackdaw) or C. frugilegus (Rook).

2. The flying bird is a puzzle, but birds appear to the Renaissance painterly eye rather different than to the eye of we with ample field optics. The sweep and arc of the wings struck me as a signature of a soaring but not hovering harrier--Montagu's or Western Marsh. Their long tail primaries can look remarkably long and downright tropical when tightly folded in soaring rather than swooping or striking flight.

There is no need to spin off into mythic bestiaries, particularly where the painter is expressing a natural scene with such naturalism. This is part of why modern life has become so devoid of spirituality: lacking the genuine appreciation of the "highest in the lowest," yet still hungering for it, people strain to see the mythic in the mundane...and lacking that, invent it in their own image. Or, as today, in grotesque forms monetized and projected onto cave walls.

In fact, the mundane is well steeped with the higher in every iota. We need to adapt our view to see it. That is the message of Christmas...and indeed of harsh life with winter and the sea.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.