The First Masterpieces to Depict Regular People: An Introduction to the Reformation Painting of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The skat­ing scene that opens A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas is such an evoca­tive, arche­typ­i­cal win­ter vision, it’s like­ly to stir nos­tal­gia even in those whose child­hoods did­n’t involve glid­ing across frozen ponds.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder cre­at­ed a sim­i­lar scene in the 16th-cen­tu­ry. His changed the course of West­ern art.

Pri­or to his 1558 Ice Skat­ing before the Gate of Saint George, Antwerp, West­ern artists most­ly stuck to VIP por­traits, and reli­gious and mytho­log­i­cal sub­jects.

As the Nerd­writer, Evan Puschak, explains above, the rare excep­tions to these themes were intend­ed to rein­force some moral instruc­tion, often via buf­foon­ish depic­tions of reg­u­lar peo­ple behav­ing bad­ly.

The cou­ple in Quentin Mat­sys’ The Mon­ey Chang­er and His Wife are far less grotesque than the cen­tral fig­ure of his satir­i­cal por­trait, The Ugly Duchess, but the sym­bol­ism and the wife’s keen focus on the coins her hus­band is count­ing point to a sort of spir­i­tu­al ugli­ness, name­ly a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with mate­r­i­al wealth.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s Loose Com­pa­ny and Pieter Aertsen’s The Egg Dance are both set in broth­els, where debauch­ery is in ample evi­dence.

Bruegel paint­ed some works in this vein too. The Fight Between Car­ni­val and Lent pits pious church­go­ers against a plump butch­er rid­ing a bar­rel, a guy with a pot on his head, and many more rev­el­ers act­ing the fool.

His skat­ing scene, by con­trast, pass­es no judge­ments. It’s just an obser­va­tion of ordi­nary cit­i­zens amus­ing them­selves out­doors dur­ing the ‘Lit­tle Ice Age’ that gripped West­ern Europe in the mid 16th cen­tu­ry.

Adults bind run­ner-like blades to their feet with laces…

A small child uses poles to pro­pel him­self on a sled made from the mandible of a cow or horse…

A back­ground fig­ure plays with a hock­ey stick…

Less gift­ed skaters cut ungain­ly fig­ures as they attempt to remain upright. (Pity the poor woman sprawled in the mid­dle, whose skirts have flipped up to expose her bare heinie…)

Bruegel’s human­ist por­tray­al of a crowd engaged in a rec­og­niz­able, pop­ulist activ­i­ty proved wild­ly pop­u­lar with the grow­ing mer­chant class. They might not have been able to afford an orig­i­nal paint­ing, but prints of the engrav­ing, pub­lished by the won­der­ful­ly named Hierony­mus Cock, were well with­in their reach.

The every­day sub­ject mat­ter that so cap­ti­vat­ed them was made pos­si­ble in part by the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion, which came to a head with the Icon­o­clas­tic Fury, eight years after “Peas­ant” Bruegel’s dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed image appeared.

The image wins the approval of mod­ern skat­ing buffs too.

Amer­i­can field hock­ey pio­neer Con­stance M.K. Apple­bee includ­ed it in her 20s era mag­a­zine, The Sports­woman. So did sports­writer Arthur R. Good­fel­low in 1972’s Won­der­ful world of skates: Sev­en­teen cen­turies of skat­ing which prompt­ed fig­ure skat­ing his­to­ri­an Ryan Stevens to quote a trans­lat­ed Old Flem­ish inscrip­tion on his blog:

Skat­ing on ice out­side the walls of Antwerp,

Some slide hith­er, oth­ers hence, all have onlook­ers every­where;

One trips, anoth­er falls, some stand upright and chat.

This pic­ture also tells one how we skate through our lives,

And glide along our paths; one like a fool, anoth­er like a wise;

On this per­ish­able earth, brit­tler than ice.

Explore anoth­er of Pieter Bruegel’s teem­ing depic­tions of ordi­nary life with the Khan Academy/Smart History’s  break­down of 1567’s Peas­ant Wed­ding, below.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Stay At Home Muse­um: Your Pri­vate, Guid­ed Tours of Rubens, Bruegel & Oth­er Flem­ish Mas­ters

What Makes Vermeer’s The Milk­maid a Mas­ter­piece?: A Video Intro­duc­tion

A Short Intro­duc­tion to Car­avag­gio, the Mas­ter Of Light

A Brief Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Mar­tin Luther’s 95 The­ses & the Reformation–Which Changed Europe and Lat­er the World

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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