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Book of Hours: Bruegel's The Seasons

The Dutch master's paintings demonstrate the habitual parliamentman must negotiate with his environment. For all our plagues and annoyances.

If clocks are its science, then the seasons are time’s poetry. Both granular and sweeping, their slipperiness has remained a perfect butterfly for the painter’s too-long net. Monet grasped at the quickening of life in Haystacks, whose ephemerality reckons with the curse of focus: whilst looking one way in an attempt to slow time’s passing, in the periphery, it hastens in even younger pinks and richer golds. In a similar way, Pieter Bruegel the Elder misses out on the seasons too, though not for lack of trying. In his famed painted cycle’s aggregative dot-to-dotting of an imagined horizon line Bruegel is decidedly panoramic, but panoramas are characteristically unfocussed things. He turns as if to catch over his shoulder a rabbit chasing rain into the vale, but when he gets there it is already winter and the ground is white. And, in landscapes so teeming, all that remains unpainted is missed even more sorely.

In Metamorphosis, Ovid writes that it is Saturn’s fall to Tartatus and the ascension of his son that shattered the earth's eternal spring (pomegranates bobbing on treacle) into seasons yoked by toil and shelter. A stumble on Olympus tears a ladder in the stockings of the sky, yet these invisible strings mercifully leave a “short spring”, as if its eternal honey was too sweet to be discarded in its entirety. It is true that as I get older I enjoy less the stagnant bliss of summer, and more the creative wets of spring or lazy choke of autumn. Truly, I am unable to change in summer or winter: in the first instance I am the plateau I have pageanted in spring and in the second I am all defence. Give me that “short” spring, Ovid. Erectile, laughing, short, teething on the frayed ends of a string, and sweet because they are frayed. In Bruegel’s 16th century, the seasons were divided into six: the ones we know now, the bronze promontory of “late summer”, and “early spring”. Bruegel originally painted six for his series to match but only five paintings remain today. As if by a divine intervention that acknowledged its particular, short, bittersweetness, only the earlier of the two records of spring survives.

The Gloomy Day (Early Spring), 1565

Before The Gloomy Day (1565) was restored, the mould of its age rendered it even more overcast. Uncovered, now, is a stormy scene that has all the severance and mourning of a melted ice cap. Winter is retreating. The icy peaks in the distance are the final bastions of this once impartial frost and, whilst there is a hint of a black castle towering out of its coves, a past kingdom of silence goes groaning into the next year. Here are two of the prime interpolating elements throughout Bruegel’s series: in the foreground, peasantry travail against the natural signifier of their calendar whilst in the deep distance a kingdom reigns, of coin or of clouds. Here in February, the mountains are mirrored in the peaks and capes of the waves’ grey pearl. Unleashed from icy talons the oceans seem fuller and, because of Bruegel’s imprecise dimensions, threaten to overspill the lowlands. On the right they already excitedly sermon, gurgling a gap-toothed swamp and skiffs are capsized, broken into the wings of a wyrm. Perhaps this offshore tragedy is the gloom the title refers to, a deviled shanty redder than late winter. Yet, to me, this first and earliest in the series also reflects a mind freshly thawed. One invoking the imps and daemons of residual imaginations, whose once-clogged drama are now gleefully unbound.

Bruegel's wimmelbilders (“busy pictures”) often invoked a similar riotousness to his artistic genus Bosch, though not always through cosmicomic fractures across nether lands so sweet their pleasure looks painful. Instead, Bruegel's rugged, commotive style heralds a mortal, emotive ordination: unsupervised time in ambulation, humans adrift in the foreground and so obfuscating their own causality.

Long held is the idea that we determine our ideas, that we are a treasure trove of beliefs acquired, discarded and antiquated, forgotten in drawers or placed on display, but the truth is instead a ravaged cornucopia hanging like a basket of fruit. Staked upon a calendar, I long to ascribe the author of my life. Everything dangles in the balance: winter, crowds, a Like, diet, zinc, a fuck, books, coats, saffron, roads, tides, tithes, wrongs, the bees, Rome: all this and more is the dialect of my charge, and their play the caprice of my every step.

Typically, Catholic art illuminates a hierarchy from angelic humanoids that bestow the light of life down onto cherubim and eventually halo-headed celebrities, but this mapping reveals an inconsistency with the truth of belief as something less vertical, less giant and glowing and far closer to a vast landscape of roaming particles, zipped so tight as to be indistinguishable and yet no less electric. Perhaps this contradiction is the very idolatry that the Calvinists of Pieter Bruegel’s Antwerp were reckoning against.[1] Bruegel the Elder was often called Bruegel the Peasant for the subjects he chose. Under a king who ordered the persecution of protestant heretics, and in painting Antwerp the village like his unhatched Bethlehem, these heretics are who he ordained to inscribe. Bruegel was authored into a worldview that believed that the thin lime of earth fulfilled a gradient closer to hell than the angel bone zero of heaven, and so his penchant to see salvation in a muddy footprint was entirely subversive. For his series of The Seasons, commissioned for the dining room of wealthy collector, Nicolaes Jongelich, Bruegel painted from an elevated, omniscient position. Awan in broad browns, men are indistinguishable from mud and holy by proxy of their clothes writ with oblivion. And, like all good hermetic reporters who parle a two-way storm between man and god, he managed to stray far from judgement, and for his precise devotion to his subjects’ deliverance, he became an apostate.

Haymaking (Early Summer), 1565

Just like their inhabitants, Bruegel’s settlements are always so lucidly of their environments. In early summer, otherwise known as Haymaking, the moribund mist and clarts of early spring have been usurped by a vast tent of blue, and to the right of the village, golden, thatched rooves stand as gaily pyramidal as the haybales that embraced their bones, whilst the chapel a blushing rose is splashed in berry revelry. It is a summer one-half sky of sea and the other a floor of gold. Thinking this way, in the cordoning of colours[2] perhaps reveals more of Bruegel’s true schemes: that man can only name the seasons, but the seasons’ colours permeate man so vigorously that all of life is dictated by its wheeling kingdom. Today, you are blue, it is cold; tomorrow, we may harvest, and wash ourselves peach. Relinquishing control of unalterable truths is tantamount to worship, whilst schisms against the fleeced cycle of the aether are a pyrrhic nuisance. Where in Early Spring, the background was obscured by a skeletal shrove of birch, here in summer the peasants’ work is symbolised in the lantern post. This stubborn hieroglyph tells that it is only with permission from the land that we may collect its bounties undisturbed, glowing delicately across Saturn’s ebony to drink his milk and taste his honey.

The Return of the Herd (Autumn), 1565

By Autumn, the somnambulant blues of summer have melted before you realised they were on your tongue, and are hurried away by darker insects. It is here, in The Return of the Herd that the lantern post is staked deeper into the ground, and the claim on an angrier earth staked too. As the dislocation between man and land becomes further apparent, sharper become their delusions. Upon animals adorned in ears and tusked with crowns, the tax collector rides slowly into town. Though the trees are bare, their customers continue to poke a bovine elope to fake summers with spines larger than themselves: cattle are exodused from their pastures to be stowed away in dank sheds, and man tries to rob the seasons of their natural transactions.

Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565

In Hunter's in the Snow, Bruegel's most famous of the cycle, he renders a secular winter. The titular hunt is far from the aristocratic fox hock and hound sporting, instead ice-picking in wine blacks a silent, low-headed, failed act of survival. The hunters retreat to civilisation like the cattle prodded to the sheds, out of the pasture and home with only one carcass in tow. Compositionally immaculate, we the viewers are invited to follow the eyes of the hunters down to the mouths they were tasked with feeding and their dog tails coil towards the little Jesus' walking on water, engaged in a game of eisstock. It has all the colourings of a court martial and the necromantic absence of breathclouds is a subtly uncanny nod to their fates. Bruegel has the confidence to enrapture his entire work in white, reflecting the calmness that can appear so desolate in this time of year (a hostile indifference compared to the febrile and peaty tumult of early spring where life returned a sea foam vengeance) and the result is spectacular in the very sense of the word; a blanketed country inhospitably held in mystique. A draconic magpie glares down at its territory like an unchained beelzebub. My favourite moment is another colour parallel,[3] two rebellions in tandem. The striking of the fire heralded by a delicate thorn in the front centre: both blazing like the sun’s embroidered epitaph. Between this and the craggy bastions erupting from the snow, the wintry battle between hard and soft is embodied. These are the choices we are presented with at the end of the year, robbed of the comforts of warmth, the respite of breeze, and the splendour of the grass. How should we harden ourselves? To what extent? Winter like no other time has the power to reduce us to this, a starkly tunnelled people that are still yet capable of so many embers in each embrace.

It was only in the Northern Renaissance that art began to yield a commercial value, and so the dinner table was a novel gallery space. Arranged here, The Seasons would perform a chromatic progression. But, if it weren’t for such calendrical utility, they might be abstracted from the prosaic fabric of medieval life. His landscapes seem to me etymologically accurate as "Land-scaps”, Middle-Dutch for "land-ships”, not boxes but windows onto a vast ocean like cupped palms without a ceiling. In hues, Bruegel philosophizes the more watery nature of existence. Though his encyclopaedism is intensely localised, the spread of his ethnography extends beyond a simple rendition of the labours of the month to predicate the Copernican, and yet still very much illuminated. This dinner party is a psychedelic experience, shattering conceptual disguises with immediate non-borders. Whilst maintaining the self-sufficiency of puritanism, action overrides faith and Bruegel conducts an interrelated sensorium that is vast and electric exactly because of its implosion of personhood. Exactly because I must step on soil to pray, exactly because I must know mountains to die.

The Harvesters (Late Summer), 1565

The Seasons, as Joseph Leo Koerner writes, are always about “exceeding our capacity for looking.”[4] Bruegel parries our attention by actively attempting to contain the passively peripatetic. Let’s return finally to The Harvesters, to Late Summer, lazy June. As the workers reap blocks of hot old gold into work so magmatic upon their shoulders they wish their entire amphora could breathe them, others retire like leaves amongst the trees, seeing strands of time tick amongst the sheaves. A man lumps pears onto the ground in warm hooves, and in the distance, monks splash nude in the small lake by their priory. These are tiny details that would have been impossible to discern in the low light of the mansion they were framed in. But such is the madness of Bruegel’s panorama, to bring the outdoors indoors and to bring it all at once, with such attuning to the rotund hues of reality that it is near schizophrenic. One of the great delights of The Seasons cycle – the mental stitching of its frieze – is revealed in Late Summer to be entirely futile. No mountains are to be seen (such jagged peaks have never existed in Holland, anyway), and the cherry church is near once more, subversively hidden by the veins of the earth. Geographically engendered instead are the dusty footprints of a painter, and a pilgrim, hiking between the seasons and capturing more than could ever be captured by the eye. What Bruegel paints is playfully impossible, mimetic of the unfinished striving that embellishes most of mankind’s efforts like some blighted mix-up of how the hell did I get here and to what do I owe the pleasure? Ah, what a lovely mess. By surfeit zeal a year splits like an overripe plum until the peel is drunk on pulp the honeyed hernia of land tended by hand, foot and mouth, brewed Bruegel a curative mead for our futures, for all our plagues and annoyances.

[1] The ‘Beeldenstorm’ of 1566 saw protestants massacre Catholic art, lancing portraits and beheading crucifixes in a great ransacking of some false terracotta army, and one year later the “black” duke of Alba marched across the alps to claim stone’s vengeance. He descended upon Holland like genocidal rain.

[2] A relatively new technique, as fresh as the work of landscape art.

[3] Much of the colour parallels were due to the dyes available to Bruegel c.f. the inn’s swinging sign matching the dog’s mauve coat.

[4] Bosch and Bruegel by Joseph Leo Koerner


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