Pieter Breugel the Elder, Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, 1565

Breughel, Winter Landscape

Everyone told her it would be cold, but she thought perhaps the snow and ice might wait a while. At least give her a chance to settle in before greeting her. But that, of course, was not to be.

Their caravan had been on the move for months now, and she felt that she had seen virtually every landscape the world had to offer: rolling meadows bejeweled with wildflowers, dark thickets of forest, stormy whitecapped seas, craggy snow-capped mountains, marshy plains. But as they continued their journey eastward, past the windy plains at what felt like the edge of the earth, everything seemed to grow incrementally grayer and colder, like nothing she had ever seen before. The sky closed in on her, and there was a palpable density to the air. Then it had started to snow.

She had seen snow before, of course, as a child, but that had always been well into the winter months. She had looked out at the big, lacy snowflakes from the comfort of her bedroom window, a fire lit in the corner, warm furs and flickering candlelight making the snow nothing more than a lovely spectacle. This early November snowfall was different. Her coach was cold in spite of every effort to keep her warm. The cold first crept in at her feet and hands and eventually worked its way to her core. Her muscles spasmed in involuntary shivers. Their frequent stops along the way required her to step out into the muck and the rain and then the snow, inevitably getting the hem of her dress wet. She could never rid her clothes of that dampness.

Now that they were nearing the city, the monochrome, brittle landscape ceased to feel like a dream; this would be her home now. These wool- and fur-bundled people who dotted the landscape would be her people.

The airy blue skies she had become accustomed to in Rome seemed impossible to her now. Had she imagined them? The dry, balmy air, the fragrance of roses and jasmine. Could it really have been as lovely as she remembered? In this new world, the air was wet and cold and seemed to press aggressively against her skin. Her nose, pink with cold, took in only the sharp fragrances of ice and pine trees.

Suddenly the coach lurched around a corner, opening up a view of a field dotted with gnarled bare trees upon the branches of which sat dozens of crows, cawing and bobbing against the gray sky. It felt like an ominous greeting. “Welcome to the cold! Do you think you can you manage to be splendid here? In the cold? In the mud?” She straightened up, steeling herself against the antagonism of her own psyche.

In the distance she could make out the walls of the city. Whereas she had become accustomed to brick and stone fortifications, solid symbols of strength and wealth and beauty, here she saw wet, dilapidated wood that was falling apart in sections. It was not exactly an impressive first impression. I will fix this, she thought to herself. I will make this a city to impress the pope himself.

Modest though the city may have been, she was surprised that the people did impress her, even from a distance. The strength, vigor, and beauty that was so lacking in their city’s walls was on full display in the essence of these stoic people. They trudged through the snow, seemingly unimpressed by its encumbrance. Merchants had set up booths at the edge of the river to sell their wares—she heard there was a lively market for furs here—and fishermen gathered around holes in the ice where there was bounty even on this dreary, icy day. This primitive icy world felt so very alive!

In Rome the city had gone still and quiet on those coldest days of the year. Anyone who didn’t have to work stayed indoors, huddled around fires. In contrast, here it seemed there was a life force created by the cold. As if by magic, the people conjured a new season of bounty for themselves that was the inverse of the summer bounty but equally as fecund.

For the first time since the news of her marriage to this northern duke who she had come to think of as an uncivilized barbarian, she felt some measure of hope. A glimmer of excitement sent a shiver up her spine. This is a different world, she thought, and with difference there often comes freedom. She glanced out of the window of her coach, developing a new appreciation for the barren, whitewashed landscape. She could see now how this marriage was an opportunity to reinvent herself. A chance to remove the shackles of the world that had been so intent on grooming her to be a perfect Latin princess.

Here she would be her own woman. She would be vigorous like these fur-clad peasants fishing through the ice, rather than bashful and demure. She would embrace this new role of hers.

But first. First, she had to meet her new “barbarian” husband. He was waiting just beyond the city’s unimpressive walls, stout and bearded and draped in ermine. She was going to dazzle him.

2 thoughts on “Pieter Breugel the Elder, Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, 1565

  1. Simply beautiful, evocative, and enchanting as I read on eagerly to see who this woman was, where she was going, and what would become of her. Thank you! Love, Sandee

    Liked by 1 person

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