Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Snow Time -- S'No Time To Be Outside

The Limbourg Brothers, February
from Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Dutch, 1412-1416
Chantilly, Musée Condé  
MS 65, fol. 2v
New York had its first day of measurable snow in over two years today, January 16, 2024.  Although it was light here there are parts of the US that have suffered truly enormous snowfalls and this is barely the start of the snow season!  So, for all of us, I thought I would republish this 2015 look at the iconography of snow in western European art from the middle ages to the twentieth century.  So, make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, coffee or tea and enjoy!

Last night, with the entire East Coast hunkered down for a strong nor’easter and heavy snow, I couldn’t  resist stepping a bit outside my normal iconographic concerns to prepare some observations on the art of the snow scene.

From my windows today I can see the roofs of Manhattan covered in the white stuff, the pine trees planted on some penthouses as picturesque as in any Alpine scene. I am grateful that, for us at least, it wasn’t heavier and sorry for those to our northeast who took the full brunt of the storm.

With nowhere to go, since transportation is still limited, and with the power off in some locations, we find our twenty-first century selves thrown back – almost – to an earlier world, sharing with our ancestors the beauty and the disruption of snow.

The first snow scene we are aware of is the amazingly detailed and very charming one produced by the Limbourg Brothers (Jean, Herman and Paul) for the February calendar page of the Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry, produced around 1415. 

Traditionally, the February calendar page in Books of Hours showed the activity of the month to consist either of keeping warm in front of a fire, eating beside it (same as January) or of chopping twigs in a snowless landscape, often combined with the fishes that are the astrological sign of Pisces.  

February from a Breviary
French (Paris), ca. 1345-`355
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M75, fol. 1v

The Limbourgs do present the warming scene and the astrological reference, but then devote the largest portion of the page to what is happening beyond the house.

Limbourg Brothers, February (detail)
from Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Dutch, 1412-1416
Chantilly, Musée Condé
MS 65, fol. 2v (detail)

They show the sheep penned up in their fold to keep them warm and safe, the snow covered bee hives, the pigeons and other birds, possibly starlings, feeding on some scattered grain.  On the far right a woman worker, her skirts hiked up above her knees, showing the very practical boots she is wearing, hurries to get indoors as she breathes on her cold hands which are covered by the shawl she is wearing over her head and upper body.  She is the very picture of shivering cold. 

Beyond the woven wall that surrounds the farmyard a man with an ax is chopping at a tree, presumably for more firewood. Another man drives a donkey, with panniers laden with what looks like logs, past snow covered hay stacks toward a distantly seen town.  For a first image it is a strikingly successful rendering of the visual and emotional effects of winter snows and cold. 

Snow scenes remained a special field for northern painters, from the Low Countries, Germany and France, through the centuries, spreading later to America.  Mostly the scenes are simple landscapes, showing the effect of snow on the natural world, or scenes of daily human activities in the snow. 

Jean Bourdichon, January
from Grandes Heures d'Anne de Bretagne
French, 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 4

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow
Flemish, 1565
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Denis van Alsloot, Winter Landscape
Flemish, 1610
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Joos de Momper, Winter Landscape with Wagon
Flemish, ca. 1620
Private Collection

Jacob van Ruysdael, Winter
Dutch, 1670
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Caspar David Friedrich, Winter
German, 1811
London, National Gallery

Barend Cornelis Koekkoek, Winter
Dutch, 1838
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Johannes Cornelis Hoppenbrouwers, Winter Landscape
Dutch, 1854
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

George Henry Boughton, Winter Twilight Near Albany
American, 1859-1869
New York, New York Historical Society

Thomas Hiram Hotchkiss, Catskill Winter
American, 1858
New York, New York Historical Society

Henry Farrer, Moonlight in Winter
American, 1869
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Claude Monet, Cart on the Snowy Road at Honfleur
French, 1865
Paris, Musée d'Orsay

Claude Monet, Snow at Argenteuil
French, 1874
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Claude Monet, Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun)
French, 1891
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Alfred Sisley, Rue Moussoir at Moret: Winter
English, 1891
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paul Gauguin, Garden in Winter, Rue Carcel
French, 1883
Private Collection

Childe Hassam, Winter, Union Square
American, 1889-1890
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

George Bellows, Blue Snow, the Battery
American, 1910
Columbus, Museum of Art

Many feature the effect of snow and ice on the human sense of fun, showing people enjoying the frozen rivers and ponds in the same way we do today:  by strapping on a pair of ice skates, sledding, playing games or flirting.  

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap
Belgian, 1565
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts

Hendrick Avercamp, A Scene on the Ice
Dutch, 1625
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Aert van der Neer, Sports on a Frozen River
Dutch, ca. 1660
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vincent van der Vinne, Winter Landscape with Skaters on a Frozen Canal
Dutch, Undated (lived 1736-1811)
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Francois Boucher, Winter
French, 1755
New York, Frick Collection

Currier and Ives, Central Park in Winter
American, 1877-1894
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

George Bellows, Love of Winter
American, 1914
Chicago, Art Institute

Religious Scenes

A handful of paintings make the snow a backdrop for religious storytelling,  
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Census at Bethlehem
Belgian, 1566
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts
Almost unnoticed amid the busy scene is the donkey carrying Mary led by Joseph.

Joos de Momper, Winter Landscape with Flight into Egypt
Flemish, Undated (lived 1564-1634)
Private Collection
As with the Brueghel painting, the flight of the Holy Family goes virtually unnoticed at the bottom left.

History Painting

George Henry Boughton, Pilgrims Going to Church
American, 1867
New York, New York Historical Society

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware
American, 1851
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Antoine Caron, The Triumph of Winter
French, ca. 1568
Private Collection
In this interesting painting the French Mannerist Antoine Caron presents an allegorical fantasy, a pageant of the Triumph of Winter taking place along the banks of the Seine in Paris, opposite the Tuileries.  Winter sits on the triumphal car drawn by cranes at the right.  Preceding him is a procession of the pagan gods led by Janus and including Apollo, Mercury, Diana, Mars and Vulcan.  They are heading for a small, round temple which appears to be floating in the Seine and are watched by citizens on both sides of the river as well as from boats on it.  The finely observed footprints in the snow suggest careful study of the reality of snow's physical effects.  One hopes, however,  that this is a work of  Caron's imagination or, if not, that the participants didn't die of frostbite!

Jacques de la Joue the Younger, Allegory of Winter
French, ca. 1740
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Much as we do with our own snow photographs the pictures tend to focus on the after effects of the storm, not on its fury.  Snow time's s’no time to be out in it, but after the snow has passed it is the time to observe, admire and have some fun.

©M. Duffy, 2015

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Iconography of the Flight into Egypt

Luc-Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight into Egypt
French, 1879
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Our cultural celebration of the Christmas season has become very truncated in recent decades.  Currently, the popular perception of the Nativity stops at the manger scene, with both the shepherds and the Magi in attendance, even though they arrived at different times and probably to different places.  This truncation seems to me to have begun in the mid- to late-1980s. Even the liturgy of the Catholic church reflects this.  For 2024, for instance, the celebration of the Epiphany (the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus) on Sunday, January 7, will be followed immediately, on January 8, with the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord, something which happened to the adult Jesus.  And that ends the liturgical Christmas season, which once upon a time stretched to February 2nd.

When I was younger there was a more general knowledge of the entirety of the story that is found in the Gospels, not to mention in pious traditions.  So, over the more recent decades we have cut off such important elements as the massacre of the Holy Innocents by Herod and the entire Flight into Egypt and residency there, which once formed such a major portion of the iconography associated with the Nativity of Jesus.  

Indeed I have personally overheard puzzled museum goers try to identify what was happening in a painting that was obviously a Massacre of the Holy Innocents (and clearly labeled as such on the wall card next to the painting).  The three ladies finally decided that the subject must be a massacre of children in Jerusalem by Crusaders during the Middle Ages!  I respectfully intervened to tell them of their mistake and was met by puzzled looks and the objection "Where is that in the Bible?"  It's Matthew 2:16-18.

Massacre of the Innocents

The Magi, who after arriving in Jerusalem were invited by Herod to share with him the timing of the appearance of the star that had sent them on their quest, were warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem but "departed for their country by another way".  (Matthew 2:12)

"When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi." (Matthew 2:16)  This event is known as the Massacre of the Innocents (click here).

The Flight into Egypt

But the slaughter failed completely in its objective because God had other plans.  An angel warns Joseph about Herod's plans and orders him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to wait for Herod's death. (Matthew 2:13-15)  Following the angelic warning the Holy Family flees.

Their flight has been the subject of innumerable paintings, sculptures and decorative works over the centuries.  Indeed, as a subject, it is as important as the Nativity itself, or the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

  • The Flight into Egypt -- The Holy Refugees, The "Simple" Images (Part I of a Series)  click here
  • The Flight Into Egypt -- The Variations (Part 2 of a Series)  click here
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part I of 3  click here  
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part II of 3  click here  
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part III of 3  click here

So, come and join those who, over many centuries, have contemplated the effects of Herod's horrible attack on the children of Bethlehem and the means by which his intended target was saved to live for the purpose for which he was sent.

© M. Duffy, 2024