Paintings of snowball fights (or, a history of the snowball)…

The frost overnight was so heavy that it felt like walking on crunchy snow this morning. And I received my first Christmas card of the year, with a charming medieval image of a snowball fight from a Books Of Hours. It must have been so difficult to stay warm in the medieval period that it seems a little surprising that anyone other than children were even having snowball fights, but as it turns out this was quite a common subject matter as a Books Of Hours would show typical snowy activities for the winter months. Medieval Books of Hours were prayer books for laymen, compendiums of psalms, Bible verses, hymns and prayers for private devotional use. They also functioned as a liturgical calender, hence the month-by-month illustrations in the finest, most expensive Books.

Here’s one from a Flemish hours (which you might guess from the windmill in the background), around 1510. Hard to tell if they are supposed to be children since I notice that medieval painters depicted rather squat men and women (or maybe people were just a lot shorter then!) I like the attention paid to the snow all over their leggings and tunics where they’ve taken a hit

Flemish hours

December calendar in a Book of Hours, ca. 1510 © The Walters Art Museum

Here’s a snowballing fresco – a scene from the walls of the Castle Buonconsiglio in Trento, Italy, from 1400. It represents the month of January and is part of the Late Gothic Twelve Months cycle by an unknown artist known only as the Master of Bohemia.  This frescoed castle looks amazing, and I’d love to visit it. In this snowball fight we get the feeling that it certainly wasn’t considered unladylike for women to throw snowballs. They look as if they could use a scarf though.

Castle Buonconsiglio

Another fresco here – a detail (the Allegory of Winter) from the wonderful fresco in the Palazzo Publico in Siena, from 1338-40. He’s the first character who looks really suitably attired for the weather. And he certainly needs it from the looks of that sleety snow. I like how serious he looks about his occupation

Allegory of Winter

There are some very fun Japanese Ukiyo-e prints showing snowball fights. This one below from 1787 is by Torii Kiyonga, known mainly for his blushingly erotic images. It’s charming, though I can’t really imagine that Japanese children played in the snow in bare feet? And with shaved heads, too?

Torii Kiyonga

In the nineteenth century it seems that children having snowball fights was a popular subject for cheery winter scenes. They are usually pretty saccharine. One German painter called Fritz Freund (1859-1942) seems positively to have specialised in snowball fight scenes and his have a little more bite to them – he actually paints little boys fighting as seriously and violently as they can do. It’s like a small riot! The only little girls to be seen are on the left had side of the painting, talking amongst themselves and ignoring the melange. This is the best of the paintings I think and is called (you guessed it) The Snowball Fight

Fritz Freund The Snowball Fight

For yet more snow (and less fighting!) see the post on snowy paintings. And continuing the festive theme: see my selection of favourite Christmassy paintings

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