I know you've all seen this on countless Christmas cards,
but was there ever an image less brimming with Yuletide cheer.
Those hunters haven't got much to show for their trouble.
A skinny fox suspended from their poles.
The exhausted dogs,
trying to lift their legs out of the heavy snow,
feel the pain as much as their masters.
Bruegel painted these compendious,
visually inexhaustible masterpieces
after the coldest, most frigid Flemish winter
that anybody could remember in their lifetime.
But he also painted them on the cusp of a long, terrible civil war
that would divide the Netherlands between
Protestant and Catholic, north and south,
the Spanish Empire and the free Dutch Republic.
And Bruegel would actually find himself right in the middle
of all those troubles.
But, while we're looking at these glorious landscapes,
none of that history seems to matter.
For Bruegel, the natural world
is a consolation for the traumas afflicting civilisation.
Whatever happens in our human world,
the God-given seasons will still roll around,
the cattle will still return to their winter pasture.
Let's just think for a minute
about the way he wants us to look at these paintings.
It's a dialogue, in a way,
between the universal and the particular.
On the one hand, wherever the eye travels,
we are invited into a wealth of detail of work and play.
The trudge through the snow,
the glide of the skaters across the ice.
And wherever we travel with our eye through the landscape,
we're carried to dramatically different places.
From a Flemish village huddled against the hillside,
out to a storm-tossed river estuary,
out to the broad, open sea.
An experience of looking at these paintings becomes, surely,
like the experience of all of our lives.