Bruegel: The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow

Abb. 1_Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige im Schnee 1[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1563), Sammlung Oskar Reinhart «Am Römerholz», Winterthur © Sammlung Oskar Reinhart «Am Römerholz», Winterthur]

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-30-1569) is celebrated for his paintings of snow. His blend of realism (accurate depictions of clothing and buildings) and artificiality (landscapes that combine Brabant environs and Alpine topography) made a profound impression at the time and – after a reputational lull – from the Nineteenth Century onwards.

A recent exhibition (23 November 2019-1 March 2020) at Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur, Switzerland collected art associated to its own Bruegel painting The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1563). This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. As is usual with Bruegel’s major painted compositions, numerous later copies were produced including a version exhibited here. One scholar catalogues 36 copies of this composition, 26 of which he attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638).

The painting shows the Holy Family sheltering in an adequate shelter in a Brabant town. Townsfolk are continuing with their daily lives – collecting water, cutting willow twigs, conveying tributes or seeking warmth. The scene is set in deep winter, with snow falling. The kings and the Holy Family are ignored by the people, just as the fall of Icarus is ignored by the ploughman in Bruegel’s famous painting in Brussels. There are political references in the picture – including the presence of Spanish troops and the Habsburg insignia on the tribute being sent. The Habsburg Spanish control of the Low Countries was creating resentment at the time the picture was made; it would break out into warfare (on the bases of Reformation theology and national independence) in 1568, the year before Bruegel’s death. The painting is oil on oak panel, 35 x 55cm, in generally good condition. The discovery of the date “1563” alongside the artist’s signature confirms that date of production.

Although a number of Bruegel paintings depict snow and ice, The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow is the only painting in which snow is falling. It is apparently the first surviving oil painting of falling snow in Western art. (There are earlier miniatures.) Later versions omit the falling snow, which strongly suggests the copyists (or at least Pieter Brueghel the Younger, whose version may have acted as a common source for later copyists) used a detailed drawing Bruegel that did not include snowfall. Other differences include coloration and small details. The older artist would have made such changes, altering his design as he went. Considering the high demand for Bruegel’s art, it is likely that Brueghel never saw a number of father’s paintings, all of which were painted before his son Pieter was born or while he was a small child.

Dendrochronology data proves that this painting was painted on an oak panel from the same plank that was used for Death of the Virgin (c. 1562-5), Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (1563) and Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565), imported from the Eastern Baltic. The Adoration panel is smaller than the others and shows evidence of being cut down on the top and right sides, which is corroborated by posthumous copies showing these areas of the composition. However, the copies may be based on drawings and Bruegel may never have actually painted these margins in his picture.Bruegel’s paint handling was new and Impressionistic, radically simplifying forms and allowing the qualities of paint and application to act as a shorthand for the physical bodies he was describing. “Bruegel’s treatment of figures in this small panel is often looser than in his larger works. This Adoration of the Kings in the Snow, with its novel snowflakes, may have represented a somewhat experimental work for Bruegel, which could explain the relatively spontaneous handling.”

The exhibition gathered 15 items, including paintings and engravings. Some of the engravings were derived from Bruegel drawings made specifically for engravers. When Bruegel commenced his career in Antwerp, he was solely a print designer; only later did he begin making oil paintings and move to Brussels. He painted a series of seasons but he was working on a series of prints of seasons, which was left unfinished at his death.

Abb. 6_Pieter van der Heyden nach Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._verlegt von Hieronymus Cock_Sommer (1)

[Image: Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, published by Hieronymus Cock, Summer,(1570), engraving, sheet from The Four Seasons, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich © Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich]

The print Summer (drawn 1569, cut and printed 1570, posthumously) displays Bruegel’s late ambition to imbue figures of peasants with grandeur and monumentality, inspired by Michelangelo. It also shows his ability to use foreshortening, with the foot and scythe projecting out of the picture plane. (Actually, it displays his lack of anatomical training, as the foot should be larger.) The other print designed was Spring, showing gardeners at work. Two classic compositions by Bruegel (St Jerome and Journey to Emmaus), where one foreground corner to close up and the rest of the low-land landscape is shown from an aerial perspective, with a high horizon line, were published by Hieronymous Cock. Cock also commissioned pastiches of Bruegel’s compositional style, due to the demand for his designs.

Abb. 2_Joannes und Lucas van Doetecum nach Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._verlegt von Hieronymus Cock_S. Hieronymus in Deserto (1)

[Image: Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, published by Hieronymus Cock, The Temptation of Saint Jerome, (1556), engraving, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich © Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich]

The catalogue contains a section summarising the main observations in French. Although a small volume, The Miracle in the Snow: Pieter Bruegel the Elder contains significant new information about a key painting by Bruegel and is an approachable book for non-specialist readers.

The Miracle in the Snow: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur (SOR)/Hirmer (distr. Hirmer), 2019, paperback, 96pp, 50 col. illus., £24.95, English text, some French, ISBN 978 3 7774 3498 8

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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