Musings for July 2021

              Bruegel - A Man For All Seasons

When the words " SEASON" AND " LIFE " are used together , it is usually to talk about the stages of life living within the rhythms of the seasons.


Nature has its annual cycle. Winter, spring, summer and autumn. Each season has different weather, energy, feeling and food.


Nowadays, we can mostly ignore the seasons. Indoors with central heating even air conditioning the temperatures can stay the same and with electricity we can have light whenever we like. With modern agriculture and transportation if we fancy a strawberry at Christmas then we can easily find them.


But, think of the past and life for our ancestors was very different. Can I take you back to the mid 16th Century ? To Belgium perhaps, where a few merchants had increased their wealth by trading but for the majority of people life was very hard. How do we know this? From many historical sources but also from the art of the time, especially the art of PIETER BRUEGEL THE ELDER.


In 1565 a wealthy Antwerp collector and patron of the arts Niclaus Jonghelinck commissioned Bruegel the well - known artist to draw a sequence of paintings depicting the seasons to adorn the walls of his dining room. He wanted it to act as a frieze and show the labours of the months and also act as a pictorial calendar. The result being that each of the paintings is based on a season and deals with food or the consumption of it. Imagine the impact of that for the dining room which was a gathering space in the Flemish home.


Today there would have been four paintings, but then it was six because the calendar of Northern Europe had two transitional seasons - early spring and early summer. The spring painting representing March and April is lost but the early spring painting is called THE GLOOMY DAY, and shows us life in January and February.

Image: Public Domain

The Gloomy Day

This painting represents the awakening of nature at the New Year which  traditionally in the Netherlands was on March 1st.


Tasks undertaken are collecting wood, cutting osiers (willow switches) and tying them in bundles, and repairing thatched roofs.  It is carnival time, signified by a child with a paper crown, a lantern and a man eating a traditional waffle.Down in the village there are signs of celebration at the tavern, here is music and dancing and a man relieving himself against a wall. Under the leaden skies a storm rages and there are sign of snow still on the mountain tops. Nevertheless the people persist in their endeavours whilst celebrating carnival, marking the rebirth of the earth and having a brief release from the monotonous demands of daily life.




Image: Public Domain

The Harvesters

Labours inherent to May & June are Haymaking thus the name of the picture. A peasant sits on the ground in light clothes, a brimmed hat and carrying a scythe. The picture shimmers with heat whilst three women walk with rakes across their shoulders, about to glean I suppose. Six workers begin their journey down a steep incline into the vast expanse of fields. Some carry baskets on their heads loaded with produce - cherries and peas. A rocky outcrop and a tree balance the scene.

Bathed in a golden light this relaxed picture looks at those who work the land. Most of the hard work has been done and the cut hay is gathered in and a man sits and sharpens his scythe knowing it has served him well again this year. By him are baskets of recently picked strawberries and cherries overflowing in abundance. Yellow is the dominant colour of warm ripe corn and the labours of the field workers almost finished they rest in the shade of a tree, eating, drinking and dozing in the glory of a summer's afternoon.


Bruegel chose to show THE RETURN OF THE HERD for his autumnal painting. The colour scheme here mimics the season with warm ochre and earth tomes at the foreground and colder blue tones of the river and mountains beyond. The herd runs in a diagonal line from left to right being prodded and guided towards their winter quarters by the herdsmen. They have been brought down from their summer pastures to be nearer the village when winter arrives. The animals are finely drawn and correctly proportioned as they amble up the woodland slope, There is no sense of rush as they are allowed an occasional pause to savour the wayside grass. In a field by the river labourers have finished harvesting grapes from the vineyard that slopes down to the valley. A storm is approaching as it does in autumn with the uncertainty of blue - black clouds whilst the river is bathed in sunshine.This forms a demarkation line between the two zones.

Image:  Public Domain

The Return Of The Herd

Image:  Public Domain

The Hunters in the Snow

This is a celebrated image dominated by two colours. The white of the snow and the pale green of the sky and ice. Every living thing is dark. It is an exquisite study of coldness, and silence and the torpor of a winter landscape. A line of trees in the foreground leads downhill to the village and frozen ponds below. An overall sense of weariness as the hunters and dogs plod and trudge through the thick snow. A meagre , solitary fox is all they have to show for a day's work. The dogs are especially down with lowered heads and their tails between their legs.


The picture lights up on the left with a bright fire and people preparing to roast a pig.


There is much activity in the village, where people skate. At the lower right is the mill which its wheel frozen and static whilst a woman hurries along with kindling on her back. Beyond the church a man crosses the frozen river with a cart pulled by two horses which is loaded with winter fuel. One detail I love is the birds. Four crows sit amongst the bare branches of a tree and a magpie is in flight.


Historians have noted that the winter of 1565 was the coldest anyone could remember and which turned out to be the harbinger of the Little Ice Age to come.


This entire cycle shows lives lived close to the land. The scenes are not idealised. Bruegel was a Humanist and a skilled observer of nature in all its forms. These paintings show the life of " Everyman " and his year's work for generations. His vision is at once human and universal with a sympathy for mankind and its small part in the eternal cycle.

Denise West

July 2021

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