Nobody puts a world in a picture like Pieter Bruegel. Look at this winter scene.
Pieter Bruegel’s Return of the Hunters (Wikimedia public domain photo)
You are alive in 1565. You lived in old Flanders on a sad day when the sun never came out. You saw the day close and the tired hunters come trudging home through the snow. Even their dogs were pooped.
The wind blows right through you. You were a child and you shivered by the fire your mother had started for supper. Those damn magpies glide so easily down to the the plain. They never mind the cold.
Or you were a kid skating on the pond, all bundled up in wool, or a guy collecting firewood or peeing in a corner by the frozen mill.
Remember what the old houses looked like? That’s them. And the roads and the trees. You saw them, you knew them. Bruegel’s winter has been everyone’s WINTER for four hundred and fifty years.
Brueghel is always a surprise and a mystery. Take two of his Epiphany paintings:
The Adoration of the Magi by Pieter Bruegel, in the National Gallery of London (public domain photo)
Who else would put such ugly humanity into a picture of this great event?
What a congregation of mean, stupid people! The rude soldiers look as though they have collected for an arrest or a Crucifixion and are disappointed. Except for the crossbowman with a bolt in his hat (the way a carpenter keeps his pencil): he has gone soft on seeing the Infant and Mother.
The two men on the right are just curious bystanders. God only knows what they will go home and tell their wives.
Hearty St. Joseph loves a good meal. What is that servant whispering to him? Presumably it isn’t bad news, such as that the owner of the stable would like him and his family to leave.
Why did Bruegel make the Kings ugly too, except for the beautiful black Balthassar, who holds one of the most original gold ships there ever was? It is worthy of Benvenuto Cellini.
They say Bruegel took the Virgin’s pose from Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. And so he probably did, though unless they point out the similarity you won’t think of it.
Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna (photo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
Here is another Three Kings picture.
The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel in the Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland (public domain photo)
They have arrived on a snowy day in old Belgium. No fanfare, no angels, no haloes, no star. The Virgin and Child are almost out of the picture, in that nearly roofless ruin on the left. A fine place to sit and receive a visit.
Everyone is fighting the cold, the wind, and the snow. How they do that seems to be the real subject of the picture. Soldiers have started a fire in a ruin next to the manger. Other soldiers are headed for the shelter of that big farmhouse (or inn). Peasants are scavenging firewood and cutting branches off a fallen tree. Men and women are fetching water from a hole in the ice of a pond. Only the little girl on the sled is enjoying herself and her mother tells her not to.
On the right of the picture, balancing off the manger, is a makeshift toilet and some of the Kings’ soldiers seem to be hurrying there while their lords go adoring to the left.
Bruegel self-portrait (public domain photo)
There is simply nobody like him.