His works are anchored in the cultural memory of mankind. The very mention of picture titles such as 'Tower of Babel' or 'The Peasant Wedding' brings the grandiose paintings of the Dutch painter genius Pieter Bruegel the Elder to our mind's eye.
His 'Hunters in Winter', sometimes also dubbed 'Return of the Hunters', occupies a special position in Bruegel's oeuvre. It is not only the first winter painting in Western painting. It is also one of the absolute masterpieces of European art.
The fact that winter suddenly found its way into Renaissance painting is due to a climatic change. At the time when Bruegel made his painting, Europe was experiencing by far the coldest winter. Even more: at that time the 'Little Ice Age' began, which lasted until the last third of the 17th century. His attempt to depict the prevailing cold in a painterly way has fully succeeded with this picture.
One question is of particular interest for us in Tyrol: Is it true that the monumental landscape of the 'Hunters in Winter' shows, among others, Amras, the Martinswand, Weiherburg and St. Bartelmä? Already in 1951, Wilhelm Fischer had claimed this in a publication of the Tyrolean Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum. (His paper can be found as a link at the end of this blogpost.)
In the last few weeks, I have set out to examine his theses and have come to exciting results. With pleasure I take the readership with me on a small round trip 'on the traces of master Bruegel'.
The search for traces and clues
First of all, I wanted to find the point from which Bruegel could have conceived the painting. It had to provide a beautiful view of Amras, Innsbruck and the mountains. Without the 'starting point', the assumption that Bruegel could have 'immortalized' Amras would be completely baseless. I found what I was looking for: At the junction of the Pfaffensteig's from the Luigenstrasse there is a small flat area directly at the edge of the forest, which then slopes more or less steeply towards Amras. I am sure that Bruegel had made from here that sketch which then decorated to the monumental scenery of his 'Hunters in Winter'.
The place where the hunters enter the picture was certainly not remote in the late Middle Ages. On the contrary: the Pfaffensteig represented the old connection between Amras and Ampass, and was thus the connecting route to Hall and further into the Tyrolean lowlands. That there must have been a lot going on there is also shown by the fact that a stone was found on the roadside of the Pfaffensteig Tyrol's largest gold treasure had been found.
When did Bruegel stay in Innsbruck?
The crucial question is: Did Pieter Bruegel the Elder stay in Innsbruck at all? And if so, when? The great Renaissance painter, after being proclaimed master in 1551, visited Italy two years later. His outward journey via France is known. However, there are no written records of the return journey, which probably took place between 1554 and 1555.
Stopover in Maximilian's city of residence
For me it is completely logical that on his way back from Rome he wanted to visit the city that Emperor Maximilian I had chosen as his residence city: Innsbruck. After all, Bruegel's homeland, today's Netherlands, was ruled by the Habsburgs at that time. In addition, Bruegel certainly knew the drawings of Albrecht Dürer. Not only those that the Nuremberg master made of the art-loving emperor but also views of the city and the Hofburg.
Bruegel has 'swallowed mountains and rocks'
And when Bruegel stayed in Innsbruck, he surely made a lot of sketches. Before his painting career, Bruegel was a famous and fantastic draftsman who made thousands of drawings. In any case, Bruegel's biographer Karel van Mander wrote a few years after the master's death: "On his travels he took up many views after nature, so that it is said of him that in the Alps he swallowed up all the mountains and rocks and, taking them home, spat them out on canvas and panel, so resolutely did he manage to follow nature in these and other fields."
Amras 'swallowed and spat out again'?
In my opinion, there is solid circumstantial evidence why Bruegel had Amras in mind and as a concrete sketch in front of him when he painted his 'Hunters in Winter' on oak wood
- On his return journey to the Netherlands, the coldest winter in living memory was prevailing. The little ice age was announcing itself. It was logical that lakes and streams were frozen. A detail illustrates how cold it was. For from the chimney of a house the flames beat. Presumably, because of the grim cold was not spared with firewood.
- The deep snow-covered mountains of the Nordkette still exert an enormous fascination on us modern people. Pieter Bruegel must have been all the more impressed by this rock wall.
- The viewpoint of the viewer of the picture corresponds exactly to the one that presents itself from the Pfaffensteig. The fascinating mountains and the starkly sloping Martinswand in winter dress certainly impressed the master from Flanders. And - far more important - the Amras Lake was in the immediate vicinity of the village center, on which today the DEZ is placed. Now many of my knowledgeable readers will ask where a lake existed in Amras. Indeed, it was a reality until the beginning of the 20th century. Emperor Maximilian had fish bred here for imperial banquets.
The winter joys of the country folk
The 'Hunters in the Snow' provide a unique insight into the winter life of people in the first half of the 16th century. Highly interesting are depictions of how people enjoyed themselves in winter 500 years ago. After all, they only had time to indulge in leisure activities in winter, as the rest of the year they were busy ensuring their survival.
One of these amusements depicted in detail by Bruegel is for me an important indication that he based his painting on those sketches he made in Amras. They are the little boys who are quite obviously playing with spinning tops at the pond. dozenhacken' is the name given in this country to this extremely popular winter custom of children. As the wonderfully informative site 'Sagen.at' notes, the custom was originally practiced in Innsbruck during a precisely defined period: from Carnival Saturday to Ash Wednesday. Was Bruegel in Innsbruck at that exact time? Very well possible.
And the fact that adults practice a primitive form of curling at the same pond is another important indication. It was once one of the most popular winter pastimes of the people in Tyrol. Incidentally, it is still practiced up and down the country today
This is how Bruegel's sketching excursion might have taken place
It can be assumed that Bruegel made an excursion to the surrounding area during his stay in Innsbruck, during which he made sketches. The already mentioned viewpoint at the Pfaffensteig suggests this theory at any rate. Follow me on a round trip that convinced me that the Amras reference of the 'Hunters in Winter' is absolutely realistic.
Wilten with St. Bartelmä
The starting point was certainly Wilten Abbey. And here, quasi around the corner, stands the oldest church of Innsbruck: St. Bartelmä with the striking round tower. And it is clearly recognizable in the picture.
The steeply sloping Martinswand is Bruegel's defining landscape quote. It is true that the wall cannot be seen in Cinemascope from Amras. And yet I am sure that it remained in his memory when he passed it on his onward journey to Flanders. For a 'flatlander' this rock face must have caused feelings of fear.
In addition to the steeply sloping Martinswand in the upper right area of the painting, it is above all a 'landscape quote' by Bruegel that particularly catches my eye: the mountain ridge sloping down from the Brandjochspitze to the Frau Hitt. The fact that even the Frau Hitt is 'recognizable' does the rest. The Brandjoch ridge of the painting, however, is not so clearly perceivable from Amras.
Via the Pfaffensteig to Hall and Thaur
I assume that Bruegel went over the Pfaffensteig to Ampass and further on the Salt road to Hall road, at that time an ultra-rich salt town. To continue from there via Heiligkreuz in the direction of Thaur, where he was certainly interested in the Thaur Castle. And exactly on the route between Heiligkreuz and Thaur, the ridge can be seen as it was painted by Bruegel.
The end of his excursion could have Weiherburg could have formed. The castle-like building still has two indications, which are present in the picture of Master Bruegel even in detail: the round arch in the area of the old castle entrance and the attached corner oriels of the tower.
And where is Innsbruck, by the way?
Of course, Bruegel also immortalized Innsbruck. It does look as if the Inn flows around the city on the left, or as if the body of water were a bay. Like every great artist, Bruegel did not intend to fix a landscape quasi photographically. Or even to reproduce it faithfully. It served him as a staffage to live out that artistic freedom that every famous master takes. As mentioned, even Albrecht Dürer had painted his famous watercolor sketch of Innsbruck without the Serles Peak.
Your opinion is asked
Even if it is only an assumption, Bruegel immortalized Amras in his masterpiece: Alternatives have not been mentioned until today. Perhaps at some point sketches will emerge that will allow a direct inference to Bruegel's landscape quotations. Until then, we can bask in the fact that Amras and the majestic towering mountains of the Nordkette inspired the Flemish master to create the greatest winter painting in art history.
I am curious about your opinion. Do you see it similarly or is it just a dream I've been chasing? I would be very interested in your comments.
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A volunteer at the "Schule der Alm" alpine farming school, cultural pilgrim, Tyrol aficionado and Innsbruck fan.