A Christmas Card Scene Encompassing the World

Editor’s Note: This was originally posted on December 24, 2019


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!