Sebastian Vrancx (1573-1674), a versatile Flemish painter known for his bustling scenes of battles, banquets, and landscapes, produced this image of urban winter amusement in Belgium. Entitled “The Cranehead on the Scheldt River in Antwerp” (1622), it depicts the boundary between the icy city and the frozen riverfront where the urban dwellers gather to work and play. In the period known as the “Little Ice Age,” roughly from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, the temperature was markedly cooler than the medieval past; this resulted in the freezing of rivers, canals, and lakes from North America to Western Europe to Turkey. In the winter of 1620s, shortly before this painting was created, the Bosporus froze so thickly that people could walk clear across from Europe to Asia. While such dramatic changes imperiled mercantile activity in now-frozen seaports and prompted illness and scapegoating, contemporary Flemish and Dutch painters like Vrancx, Pieter Brueghel (both Elder and Younger), and Hendrick Avercamp captured the snowy landscapes with a sense of wonder and curiosity.
In this scene, Vrancx juxtaposes the bustling activity of the citizens of Antwerp and the dormant industry represented by empty shops and docked ghost-like ships. Amid ice floes, people cavort and galivant: some ice skate, a man brandishes a stein of ale and sausage links, and others gamble and mingle in the crowds. Several skating individuals are captured in the middle of a fall. Social classes cross paths here, from the velvet- and fur-clad upper bourgeoisie to the poor, embodied in the one-legged beggar asking for alms. The weather is evident in every inch of this scene: the brisk wind pulls a woman’s veil while promenading pairs bury their hands in fur muffs and tilt their chins down to protect their faces from the chill. Antwerp is bathed in gleaming, pearly light that foretells more snowfall. Touches of scarlet paint punctuate the somber black and wintry whites, inviting the eye to participate by weaving in and out of the crowds at the riverfront.