'Hunters in the snow' by Pieter Bruegel, 1565

A lost masterpiece

Brussels, 1565/1566. Pieter Bruegel paints a series of idyllic landscapes. Pictures of happy people through the four seasons.

Philip II of Spain has been in power for ten years, a period of increasing persecution of heretics as well as increasingly heavy taxes. Ten thousands of people were burnt at the stake, beheaded, or buried alive, many others are starving to death because of the famine.

The counts Egmond and Hoorne request an audience with the king and plead with him to reduce the persecutions, but this only leads to the king replacing public executions by secret ones so that the victims cannot be made into martyrs anymore.

From then on, alleged heretics perish slowly in the silence of their dungeons.

Resistance increases by the day and pamphlets calling for revolt appear everywhere. The ‘Verbond van de Edelen’ (Confederation of Noblemen) is founded to take a stand against the harsh ruler. It all culminates in the Iconoclastic Fury.

In the meantime, Pieter Bruegel is painting his seasonal scenery. After his death in 1569, his friend Ortelius the geographer writes about Bruegel that he is the only painter who paints things that cannot be painted.

Main character Martin Clay becomes intrigued by this remark when he thinks he has found a lost painting from the seasonal series. What exactly did Bruegel paint that could not be painted?

Headlong is an entertaining book about greed in the fine art trade, and a search for the painter’s intentions.


Michael Frayn



Brussels, Antwerp



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