Sébastian Vrancx: The Allegory of the Seasons

Sébastian Vrancx (1573 – 1647) was a Flemish Baroque painter who is mainly known for his battle scene paintings. However, he was also an artist who painted a number of other curious paintings, and below is just one set from the series of his paintings on the theme of the allegory of the seasons. Early medieval manuscripts (such as books of hours) often referred to and depicted this theme, and it gained the most popularity around the early 17th century.

Allegory of Winter [c. 1608]

A winter scenery and details of an abode make up this allegory of winter by Sébastian Vrancx. In the foreground of this painting, we see the scarce winter “produce”: the “Queen” food of winter months – a cabbage, but also a barrel full of turnips and some other vegetables, together with kitchen utensils, a carnival costume with a mask, abandoned skates, and varies implements to keep warm, including blankets and stoves. An old man is seen trying to warm himself in front of a modest fire, while, in the background, there is a snowball-fight ongoing and a lone skater is seen enjoying the frozen moat. To the left, we also see the customary winter slaughtering of pigs, a task usually carried out in the beginning of winter to sustain a family through the harsh winter months. Winter was no laughing matter for the majority living in Vrancx’s times when illness, death and hunger were commonplace and a sense of desolation and destitution prevalent, but the artist still managed to imbue his painting with a sense of hope by portraying or referring to joyful winter past-times (skating, snowball-fights, carnival) and whatever food was available in this coldest of seasons.

Allegory of Spring [c. 1608]

This painting is much brighter than the previous one, and the general impression is one of greenery. Spring is in the air, and, in the foreground, we see an assortment of still life: spring flowers in all their splendour and some fruit. Unlike the winter allegory above, we see young people in this painting. It is time for new beginnings, productivity and many outdoor activities, and, thus, there are people in the painting tending gardens and bleaching cloth. It was common in Vrancx’s time to depict a couple or a scene of courtship to represent spring, and thus, we see a young man here carrying a plant, as well as a young woman drawing water from the well. Their actions represent the beginning of a new life – seeds and plants will be planted and watered so a new cycle can begin. A piece of veal on a plate to the left also signals the end of hunger. Now, through hard work, a variety of food may again be available.

Allegory of Summer [c. 1618]

The summer season is hot and dry, and though nature is finally in its full bloom and a variety of berries and fruits can be enjoyed, it is time for hard work. Summer is the time of harvests (hay can be already collected in June, and wheat that was planted at the end of autumn is ready to be harvested in July). Thus, the painting depicts peasants hard at work in the golden fields, while one man is seen drinking from a flask to ward off over-heating.

Allegory of Autumn [c. 1618]

This painting, which is bathed in beautiful orange colours, brings to mind John Keats’s poem To Autumn: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun/Conspiring with him how to load and bless/With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run/To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees/And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core/To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shell/With a sweet kernel.” Like the two pervious paintings, there is much human activity and fruit on display here, including pears and squash. Seeing that the apple is a quintessential autumnal fruit, a basket full of picked apples is placed centrally in this painting, and it seems that grapes have also been harvested to be pressed later. It is time to stockpile food and salt meat for the winter months ahead.

For other thought-provoking paintings depicting the allegory of the seasons, check out Simon de Vos’s painting Allegory of the Four Seasons and Human Ages and Walter Crane’s A Masque for the Four Seasons.

14 thoughts on “Sébastian Vrancx: The Allegory of the Seasons

  1. This is a painless – in fact engaging – way of absorbing a fair bit of social history about a part of society whose daily round was not as well documented as their more favoured neighbours. An interesting post!

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  2. Thank you – I was going to skip this one, and then I told myself to open my mind even when it’s tired, and I enjoyed the paintings very much.

    Sadly, it also reminded me of how little I can do for my own sustenance – nothing physical at all. The people in these ages had that to deal with every winter when food stores and fuel supplies grew scarce: will this be the year the old, the too-young and unproductive, and the ill don’t make it through the winter?

    The results of the pandemic are starting to ask the same questions. Australians and Danes, to give recent examples, are pretending we are excess anyway, so they should just open everything back up, and, oh, well! Never mind those who were just starting to enjoy an EARNED retirement – isn’t that what they told us? Save for your golden years?

    Is that a bag of onions hanging by the fireplace in Winter? Or would they be dried apples?

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. In our modern times we quite forget how much of people’s lives back then were depended on and dictated by the seasons and while we still feel them, for the most part we “preserved” only happy activities and seasonal pastimes and quite lost this sense of the true cycle of life dictated by nature people experienced back then. I think it is interesting to explore it from time to time and be reminded of it.

      I think many coronavirus policies around the world are quite unfair and seem to be geared towards sustaining businesses and economies, rather than ensuring the wellbeing and welfare of the people, especially the old and those that already have underlying conditions.

      And, it is hard to tell – probably onions.

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      1. Businesses and economies need to be sustained – or we will ALL suffer, disproportionately those who were already on the lower rungs of societies – I understand that. It’s just that the lack of compassion is so evident right now that it stops the heart.

        It wouldn’t be quite so bad if there weren’t a huge contingent out there rejecting the vaccines which would have stopped this in its tracks – encouraged by their irrational leaders. Mind-boggling – even when it is the unvaccinated who are bearing many of the consequences, they are also causing them for others.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Many Thanks Diana!
    Not only for the images of this flamish painter with works in several museums of Spain and Germany, but most of all for your analysis of these four allegorical paintings.
    He was also very good on the study of the human figure in daily life situations and on the balance among the various colours and moments of light in open air.

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