Bruegel’s seasons and hay on the walls of Prague.
With the dozens of medieval seasonal scything scenes in mind, a recent viewing of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s harvest painting a few blocks up Fifth Avenue from the Morgan Library stimulated a peculiar compulsion to see all five of the brillian Bruegel suite of seasons in a single summer. This entailed a pleasant trip to Prague, where, earlier this year, the greatest haymaking scene of all was moved into the city from a less convenient suburban castle. The other three are also reasonably close to Prague in the grand Viennese Kunsthistorisches Museum, which houses huge roomfuls other Bruegel masterpieces. And the Prague visitor whose vision is honed for the hay habit will find several other scythes on the walls of that great city.
Bruegel’s “Months,” as they are conventionally called, are seen by scholars as a logical extension of the illustrated manuscript calendars that preceded them for four hundred years and especially of the Simon Bening landscapes from earlier in the sixteenth century. There remains uncertainty about the number of paintings originally in the cycle and indeed precisely which months the survivors represent. Iain Buchanan’s thoughtful essay in the Burlington Magazine (August 1990, pp. 541-550) reviewed the arguments of earlier writers and concluded, based in part on the familiar iconography of seasonal rustic activity, that Haymaking represented June and July, and the Corn Harvest August and September. But the work and play in Bruegel’s landscapes are more varied than even those in the Bening’s most complex manuscript scenes (see our Morgan Library 3, below). They include secular Flemish folk references that were understandably absent from the sacred Books of Hours. Buchanan’s useful table of Labors of the Months in seven calendar cycles from the Bening Workshop (p. 550) shows Haymaking invariably as the July activity, confirming our own observations about mowing in the Morgan Library Flemish calendars. But he fails to note additional evidence for June-July as Bruegel’s months of hay, notably that June, not July, was the most common mowing month in the French manuscript calendars.
Based on manuscript conventions and images of Flemish folklore, Buchanan persuasively argues that the three famous Vienna paintings Return of the Herd, Hunters in the Snow, and Gloomy Day, were originally devoted respectively to October-November, December-January, and February-March, and that the missing painting probably represented April and May. Here is the trio representing October through March, forming a kind of brilliant triptych as they now hang together in the main Bruegel Gallery in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Separated by several thousand miles, an ocean and a continent, the summer months ought to hang together like this, as they originally did in the villa of the wealthy Antwerp merchant, Niclaes Jongelinck, for whom they were painted.
This natural summer pair were separated about half their lives ago. The harvest scene was taken west first to Paris as Napoleonic plunder, and then, just after the first World War, to the Metropolitan Museum where it now hangs, not particularly prominent in that vast complex of incomparable examples from every place and period. Haymaking moved east and remained in aristocratic collections until the Soviet era, when it became part of the Czech national collections, before returning to the Lobkowicz family after the velvet revolution. For more than a decade, the family kept it in a castle about 20 kilometers upriver from Prague, but it has now been made the most prominent object in the so-called “Princely Collections” in the Lobkowicz Palace, just inside the gates of the Prague Castle complex itself. Here are some of the promotional materials for the princely palace, all using Bruegel’s rustic hay landscape as the featured attraction.
Other mowers on the walls of Prague.
Near Prague Castle, on the same hill which dominates this magnificent city is the famous cathedral of St. Vitus. Most visitors troop by the south wall of the cathedral, some giving a cursory glance to the mosaic above the golden portal. But few pay much attention to the bronze gates across the portal, since they are mentioned in very few guide-books. But to the alert hay enthusiast who has just emerged from the Bruegel shrine, the sculptures on the gates are instantly recognizable as modern versions of the ancient occupations of the seasons, each pairing a traditional rustic activity with a sign from the zodiac. The medieval themes are expressed in a vaguely modernist style. Indeed they were cast in 1955 by the Czech sculptor Jaroslav Horejc. A few of the twelve figures are shown at left below, followed by a detail showing June, a man sharpening his scythe, with the sign of cancer, and July a drinking scyther with a woman bundling a sheaf and, above her, a remarkable aerial view of a field of stooks.
Down in medieval Prague across the river, a crowd gathers near the old town hall at the top of every hour, to watch the parade of figures emerge from one of Europe’s most complicated clocks. Just beneath the clock is a large circular zodiac, and by each sign, yet another version of the labor of each month. While the famous clock was built at the time of Bruegel, the calendar was created in the nineteenth century by the Czech painter Josef Manes. At the top of the calendar, look for the lion and crab signs, for July and June. Just outside them are respectively grain reapers and haymakers.
A few blocks away, murals with agricultural scenes, also by Josef Manes, incongruously cover the façade of a neo-Renaissance building that once housed the V J Rott iron-mongers’ business. The Rott building now houses crystal and jewelry stores. A man with a scythe and a woman with a rake reflect the familiar rustic gender themes. Finally, in the basement of the Prague Municipal Building, a treasure-house of early twentieth century murals and stained glass by Mucha and others, a mosaic by Jacub Obrovsky glows with the colors of a Bohemian harvest scene. Not it isn’t hay, but the man with the scythe justifies its presence here.
Posted by Alan Ritch at September 24, 2007 01:42 PM