The iconography of the Four Seasons derives from the medieval manuscript tradition, in particular from Books of Hours which were introduced by a calendar, listing the relevant liturgical feasts for each month, and were illustrated by images depicting the various activities or labors associated with that time of year, such as the corn harvest depicted with such delightful clarity in the Allegory of Summer. As an independent category of painting, the months and seasons became established subjects in Flanders with the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, namely his seminal cycle of the Months painted for the home of his patron, Nicolaes Jongelinck (now Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Lobkowicz collection, Prague).
The present set, like Vrancx’s sets of the four seasons, examples of which include the paintings sold Christie’s, London, 9 July 2015, lot 29, incorporate a number of stock motifs and charming details in order to signal the various times of year following in the tradition of the Labors of the Months. The crystalline light of Spring floods a scene in which a pair of courtly lovers converse in the foreground, with peasants herding sheep and planting trees beyond them. The heat of the sun imbues the scene in Summer, where a tired peasant quenches his thirst during the corn harvest. In Autumn, the wheat has been replaced by grapes, and two gentlemen at center taste the resulting product. Finally, snow-blanketed Winter shows a man splitting logs while revelers sport across the ice in the background. In each case, the vignette is set against imagined views of the rolling Flemish countryside.
The distinctive marks on the reverse of the Baltic oak panel representing Winter are an extremely rare and important survival (fig. 1), providing valuable insight into the processing, supply and transportation of artists’ supplies in the sixteenth century. The panel shows a densely-gathered group of incised lines, one running straight along the wood grain, intersected by seven slanting diagonal incisions. These can be identified as cargo or timber merchants’ marks, made after the tree was felled and the planks hewn but before it was shipped to the Netherlands. It has been suggested that the lines represent different offspring from merchant families, with marks added with every new generation (private communication with Dr. Ian Tyers, July 2019). Typically, such marks would have been planned or sanded down when the wood was processed by panel makers in the Netherlands, and so their existence here represents an extraordinary survival, providing a fascinating insight into the complexities of the trade in artists’ materials.