On the afternoon of January 2, 1565, an iceberg drifted down the harbor of Delfshaven, a fishing village in the Netherlands. According to the inscription on a 16th-century oil painting of the event, the block of ice measured nearly 20 feet tall and 230 feet wide—large enough to cut off the village’s access to the Nieuwe Maas River. No fishers would have been looking to set sail that day, though, as the water was completely frozen over, with boats great and small trapped in the ice.

The fact that artist Cornelis Jacobsz van Culemborch commemorated this iceberg’s arrival with a painting suggests it was not a regular occurrence. Dutch winters were cold, but they were rarely this unforgiving. As it happened, the year 1565 fell in the middle of the Little Ice Age (LIA), a period of widespread cooling that spanned roughly 1250 to 1860. Average global temperatures dropped by as much as 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, possibly due to a combination of volcanic eruptions and a reduction in solar activity.

Cornelis Jacobsz van Culemborch's painting of an iceberg that appeared in Delfshaven in January 1565
Cornelis Jacobsz van Culemborch's painting of an iceberg that appeared in Delfshaven in January 1565 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The LIA manifested in a variety of ways. “Many [Dutch people] died in floods that were partly caused by severe storms,” says Dagomar Degroot, an environmental historian at Georgetown University and the author of The Frigid Golden Age: Climate Change, the Little Ice Age and the Dutch Republic, 1560-1720. “Others froze to death in bitterly cold winters.” Some parts of the world saw frequent flooding, while others suffered from persistent drought. Glaciers expanded; certain pathogens spread more readily; and icebergs floated to regions that had not seen them since the last glacial period (popularly called the Ice Age), which ended more than 11,500 years ago, before the birth of civilization.

Researchers have long been interested in how early modern societies adapted to the changes wrought by the LIA. Written accounts can certainly provide insight into this period of global cooling. Reporting from Paris in 1675, author Marie de Rabutin-Chantal wrote, “It is horribly cold. … The behavior of the sun and of the seasons has changed.” Nine years later, in January 1684, English diarist John Evelyn noted, “The frost continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of shops and trades furnished and full of commodities.”

Unknown artist, Frost Fair on the Thames, With Old London Bridge in the Distance, 1684
Frost Fair on the Thames, With Old London Bridge in the Distance, unknown artist, 1684 Yale Center for British Art

But an especially rich source of information on the LIA is art. A 1684 painting by an unknown artist, titled Frost Fair on the Thames, With Old London Bridge in the Distance, illustrates the festival that Evelyn described. Italian artist Gabriel Bella, meanwhile, depicted the frozen canals of Venice in 1708. Other paintings and etchings of the Mediterranean city-state indicate its lagoon froze over at least twice more in the 18th century, in 1789 and 1791.

Even artworks that don’t center on climate anomalies can offer clues about the LIA. Scholars have used paintings of Venice’s historic architecture to track rising sea levels by comparing the positions of algal bands along the buildings’ walls then and now. A 2010 study of a 1571 painting by Paolo Veronese, who likely employed a camera obscura to ensure proportional accuracy, concluded that the sea level outside of the Coccina family’s palace was roughly 30 inches lower at the time than it is at present.

Paolo Veronese, The Madonna of the Cuccina Family, 1571
The Madonna of the Coccina Family, Paolo Veronese, 1571 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the Little Ice Age

The LIA coincided with a period of great religious and political upheaval. In the aftermath of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, Northern European artists slowly abandoned Christian imagery of heaven and hell in favor of the here and now. In Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, portraits of kings and saints gave way to paintings of parents and children, soldiers and workers, street scenes, and landscapes.

Dutch artists were especially celebrated for their commitment to realism. In 1882, French painter Eugène Fromentin declared Dutch art a “faithful, exact, complete” representation of the country’s culture; a century later, art historian Svetlana Alpers characterized Northern European painting as “an art of describing” reality, distinct from the narrative art of the Italian Renaissance. Johannes Vermeer’s The Little Street (circa 1658), for example, shows touched-up cracks in the bricklaying of a building in Delft—likely a scar from the 1654 gunpowder explosion that devastated the city and killed one of Rembrandt’s most gifted students, Carel Fabritius.

Johannes Vermeer, The Little Street, circa 1568
The Little Street, Johannes Vermeer, circa 1568 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As a genre of painting, winter scenes hardly existed in Europe before the LIA. This was partly because harsh winters like the one immortalized by van Culemborch were, at best, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. “The medieval world …. had been much warmer,” with Vikings settling in Greenland and grapes growing as far north as southern England, writes author Benjamin Moser in The Upside-Down World: Meetings With the Dutch Masters. He points out that Europe’s “first notably cold winter” took place in 1564 and 1565, when that iceberg made its way to Delfshaven.

The frost stretched from Rotterdam to Brussels, where its effects were documented by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder in his painting Hunters in the Snow (Winter). (Art historians use the term “Flemish” to refer to Flemish-speaking towns in the medieval Low Countries, which included parts of modern-day Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France and Germany.) Part of a series depicting the seasons, the image captures the hardships of the LIA, especially when compared with other hunting scenes of the time. As journalist Harmen van Dijk writes for Dutch newspaper Trouw, “The hunters do not seem to have had any luck, returning with one little fox. Not exactly a feast. The innkeepers are trying to get a fire going. They might have some food, though that dilapidated sign outside doesn’t look promising.”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565
Hunters in the Snow (Winter), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The LIA confronted the Dutch with challenges they had never faced before. In the Low Countries, rivers and canals were used to transport goods; when they froze, entire villages were cut off from maritime trade. Food shortages were common, and timber was in such short supply that in the winter of 1564 to 1565, a single bushel sold for two weeks’ wages. Households unable to afford these exorbitant prices had no choice but to look for fuel in unexpected places, tearing apart the gallows of their town squares or, if those had already been burned up, their own floorboards.

Hunters in the Snow contrasts the hard-working hunters with a group of carefree ice skaters playing in the background. Another Bruegel painting, Winter Landscape With Skaters and Bird Trap, also from 1565, lacks this explicit juxtaposition but delivers a similar message through its subject matter. At a time when birds were considered “symbols of the soul,” wrote art historians Linda and George Bauer in a 1984 journal article, the work’s winter setting appeared deliberate, with the skaters representing “the dangerous progress of the soul as it passes through the world.”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Winter Landscape With Skaters and Birds Trap, 1565
Winter Landscape With Skaters and Bird Trap, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Hendrick Avercamp and the Little Ice Age

Bruegel’s moralizing tone—a kind of visual representation of the expression “walking on thin ice”—differs from that of later Dutch and Flemish landscape painters like Hendrick Avercamp, who was active in the early 17th century. If Bruegel’s winters appear harsh and cold, Avercamp’s are warm and fuzzy, both in color and in atmosphere. Sidelining seasonal hardship, his paintings almost exclusively show people enjoying themselves as they skate, sled or play an early form of ice hockey called ijskolf. As Moser writes in The Upside-Down World, “They show a merry Christmassy world of funnily dressed people disporting themselves on frozen canals: paintings I knew from jigsaw puzzles and holiday cards.”

These pleasant scenes may have been shaped by Avercamp’s own experiences: Moser records the oft-repeated possibility that the painter, who was probably born deaf and mute, romanticized an environment he was forced to observe from a distance. But the works also have their roots in history. Avercamp was born in 1585—three years before the Dutch Republic (consisting of seven northern Netherlandish provinces) won independence from Spain in a long and brutal war—and he died in 1634. Over the course of the painter’s life, the republic developed into one of the world’s most powerful and prosperous nations.

Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape With Skaters, circa 1608
Winter Landscape With Skaters, Hendrick Avercamp, circa 1608 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Degroot argues that the republic’s successes were, in part, a result of the LIA. “Increased precipitation hampered Spanish invasions,” he says, “while changes in atmospheric circulation helped Dutch fleets to sail into battle with the wind behind them, an important tactical advantage in the age of sail. Dutch farmers, sailors, soldiers, entrepreneurs and inventors also found ways to cope with—and even exploit—otherwise disastrous weather.”

Shipwrights, for example, greased and fortified the hulls of their vessels, allowing them to slide past ice. Ice-breaking boats kept domestic waterways open in times of persistent frost and helped maintain a steady supply of ice for wine cellars.

But developments during the LIA weren’t all positive. “Dutch people also suffered from extreme weather that can now be connected to the Little Ice Age,” Degroot says. During bitterly cold winters, “rivers froze over that would otherwise have protected the republic from invasion, and hostile armies took advantage.” Ultimately, the historian concludes, “The Little Ice Age offered more benefits than drawbacks for the republic, but the same cannot be said for many of its citizens.”

Hendrick Avercamp, Enjoying the Ice Near a Town, 1620
Enjoying the Ice Near a Town, Hendrick Avercamp, 1620 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Bustling compositions like Avercamp’s Winter Landscape With Ice Skaters document not only the republic’s increasing resilience but also its growing disregard for traditional social hierarchies. “Frozen water was like carnival,” Moser writes, “an upside-down world when, for a few days, the conventions of daily life relaxed.” The polymath Hugo Grotius, a contemporary of Avercamp, agreed. “Here nobody speaks of rank,” he wrote in a poem, “here we are open and free; here the farm girl joins with the nobleman.” In time, this upside-down world would no longer be restricted to the ice.

Avercamp’s unceasing production of winter landscapes—he hardly painted anything else, leaving behind around 100 such scenes—cemented the season and its corresponding activities as a central aspect of burgeoning Dutch national identity. Today, his paintings provide snapshots of a climate that is gradually disappearing from living memory due to global warming.

“These paintings already have a nostalgic quality to them,” Moser tells Smithsonian magazine, “of sadness or loss,” particularly among Dutch people who grew up skating outdoors. “These images are over 400 years old, and the people in them look different, but we connect to them because we went outside and did the same things they did when we were kids. Now, they are the skeletons of dinosaurs.”

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