Around twenty five autograph versions of this composition are known by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, making it his most popular winter subject after the Bird Trap. The painting shows the three kings presenting their gifts to the infant Christ in a Flanders village, brilliantly combining a key biblical episode with the contemporary reality of a Flemish winter. At first glance, everyday village life appears to be the only subject: frostbitten villagers milling around, drawing water from a hole in the ice and testing the strength of the ice with a log. Brueghel urges us to look again in order to register the biblical scene set inconspicuously on the far left of the composition with the three kings’ backs turned to the viewer.
The prototype for this composition, recently described by Manfred Sellink as ‘one of the most marvellous and convincing winter landscapes ever painted’, is the picture of 1563 by the artist’s father Pieter Bruegel the Elder, now in Winterthur. The most extraordinary feature of the Winterthur picture is the rendering of falling snow, which as the same scholar has remarked: ‘not only add freshness and immediacy to the scene, but also give it a contemporary quality that one associates with work made centuries later’ (M.Sellink, Bruegel the Master, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 2018, p. 188, under no. 65).
As noted by both Marlier and Ertz, this version by the younger Brueghel is unique for the inclusion of the same snowfall. Indeed, so closely does it follow the Winterthur picture both in terms of the individual snowflakes and its palette and details, there can be little doubt that it was painted directly from the original. Only two other versions by Brueghel the Younger give any hint of falling snow and none to this degree, indicating that they were all made from cartoons, which, by their nature, would have precluded the representation of snow fall.