Today’s fans of the Elfstedentocht skating race would have enjoyed life in the seventeenth century. Because from the fifteenth to midway through the nineteenth century the Arctic ice had forced its way so far south that winters in the northern provinces were regularly more severe than before or after. In fact climatologists refer to this period as a minor Ice Age. So, the many ditches, waterways and canals of the Northern Netherlands provided ample opportunity for enjoyment on the ice. Indeed, winter was a time for fun.
Actually, for the peasantry the season started on 11 November, St Martin’s Day, when the livestock would be herded from the fields into the barns. During the three months from December to February that followed there was less work to be done on the land and more time for pleasure. Winter was not only for skating, it was also for eating and drinking. After all, in the autumn the wine had been made and the pigs slaughtered. Moreover, the winter was full of feasts when inroads could be made into the supplies. St Martin’s was followed on 5 December by the children’s feast of St Nicolas and at the end of the month it was Christmas. New Year’s Day was on 1 January and a week later Twelfth Night marked the Adoration of the Magi was celebrated. The last winter month, February, featured a three-day carnival.
Klaes Molenaer’s winter landscape has the traditional sense of fun, with the emphasis on the enjoyable side of the season. Outside the town walls young and old, rich and poor, mingle on the frozen waterway. Some are standing on the ice, chatting, while others are racing around or tying on their skates. A man and a woman are sitting on a sledge lined with straw; a horse is about to tow them over the ice. For some, work goes on – ice or no ice – like the skater pushing a fully-laden sledge.
In the foreground, to the left, a father and son are approaching. We see them from behind and observe the spectacle with them. Klaes Molenaer took the low vantage point of these two figures to give the viewer the sense of standing on the ice. In fact the view extends up to the town walls and on to the low horizon. It adds to the effectiveness of the winter landscape. The glistening drift snow, portrayed with countless touches of white on the grass, roofs and walls, heightens the realism even more. Winter landscapes are often so sunny that they seem like summer, but Molenaer has managed to capture the cold, wintery light as it reflects poignantly on the rundown town walls.
In the sixteenth century skating on the treacherously slippery and brittle ice was seen as a metaphor for the slipperiness of the short span of human existence and the ease with which a person could slide into sin. Yet there is little reason to suppose that this was the message in Klaes Molenaer’s winter scene. The seventeenth-century viewer would have been delighted by the accurate way the atmosphere is captured, the confident brushwork and the careful depiction of the many anecdotal details: aspects that still grab the viewer’s attention today.