Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s, Census at Bethlehem, shifts the Biblical story into the political and physical world of 16th century Netherlands. One of the first snow landscapes painted in Europe, the Census at Bethlehem is at once a beautifully composed genre painting and a biting social commentary. In many ways it is a painting of a broken world living in despair, and then, into this dreary scene enters hope, hope in the form of a bedraggled family and a pregnant Mary.
Pieter Bruegel was a Flemish Northern Renaissance painter and draftsman whose unique painting style and powerful compositions demonstrated his sophisticated designs. At first glance the popular images of common peasants going about their day can appear simple and charming. Upon closer inspection we come to appreciate the balance and harmony that Bruegel has achieved. Bruegel’s observations are far more than simple re-creations of daily life, they are social commentary on the world that he lived in.
Not a Peasant
Because Bruegel painted peasants so frequently he came to be known as ‘the peasant artist’. This eventually led to the assumption that he was in fact from a peasant background. Recent art historians dispute these claims. Instead we have a man who was familiar with the humanist of his day, who traveled widely, and who sold his art to scholars and wealthy businessmen. From all accounts, Bruegel was reasonably well off and lived a comfortable life.
In fact, so the stories go, Bruegel enjoyed dressing as a peasant so that he could walk about Antwerp and observe people without drawing attention to himself.
Instead of peasant stock, Bruegel the Elder was the greatest member of a storied line of Netherlandish artists. At least four generations worked during the 16th and 17th centuries in Antwerp, and in the case of Bruegel’s own sons, they made a living making copies of his popular works. The women in Bruegel’s family were also accomplished artists, and when Bruegel died, his sons were still young, so their grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, took over their training. Verhulst was one of the four most important women artists in the Low Country, a skilled miniaturist who worked in both tempura and watercolors.
Bruegel’s son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger (who spelled his name with an ‘h’) made multiple copies of the work we are going to examine today. The piece was so popular that at least 13 copies exist today. Brueghel the Younger, signed 3 copies of the Census at Bethlehem, and his works differ in some details from his father’s original. We believe this is because he no longer had the original painting to work from, but was using preparatory sketches and his memory. Brueghel the Younger copied his father’s unique style and enjoyed a successful career.
Bruegel’s second son, Jan Brueghel the Elder, also inherited his fathers gift, however he proved more versatile, original, and forward thinking than his brother. His work demonstrates a transition into the Baroque style and he often collaborated with other artists like Peter Paul Reubens.
The style that Bruegel was developing, combining common people, landscapes, and social observations came to be known as genre painting.
Whether playing games, getting a drink, bringing in the harvest, chopping wood, or ice skating, Bruegel portrayed common people in an unsentimental, earthy way. A pioneer in genre painting, his original and influential works were so accurate that they give historians a glimpse into what day to day life was like in the 1500’s. The details of clothing, toys, and tools scattered throughout his works provide details most historians don’t think to mention.
Bruegel used satire in his art to comment on the injustices that he observed around him. While initially appearing to be charming scenes of everyday life his paintings had an edge to them. Bruegel died in his early 40’s, and in his last illness he had his wife burn some of what he had been working on. He believed it might have been too controversial and he didn’t want his family to suffer for his opinions and work.
Side note: The Netherlands, Low Country, Flanders, Belgium, the Dutch and the Seventeen Provinces are all terms used for this geographical area during Bruegel’s life. It can be confusing. While connected (hence the term Seventeen Provinces) they each had their own languages and distinct cultures. However, for our purposes, and for King Phillip’s taxation and rule at the time, the entire area is being grouped together. The wars that split the area up is coming, but doesn’t enter into our story here.
Bruegel lived in the Netherlands during the rule of Philip II of Spain. This made the Netherlands part of the Habsburg Empire which stretched onto every known continent. When Philip was crowned King of Spain he was also King of Portugal, King of Naples and Sicily, and due to his wife, Queen Mary Tudor, King of England and Ireland. He was additionally the Duke of Milan, and most relevant to our story, he was Lord of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands.
AND he was Catholic…very Catholic. Philip felt that he was the chief defender of the Catholic Church throughout Europe (small wonder as he ruled most of it). His Catholic religious fervor drove him to fight heresy where ever he found it, with whatever means he had at his command, including the infamous Spanish Inquisition. This meant he was at war with the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, while also sending his invincible Spanish Armada against Queen Elizabeth in England, who had restored Protestantism to England after her sister, Mary’s (Philip’s wife) death.
The Protestant Reformation had gained many followers in the Seventeen Provinces (or the Netherlands) and Phillip’s harsh treatment of protestant converts led to continual discontent and unrest. Persecuted and sometimes tortured, the resentment toward the foreign power ruling them was growing.
Additionally, all of this ‘defending the Catholic faith’ was expensive. Spain was continually at war. Funding his wars required money and heavy taxes, and the taxes required of the Seventeen Provinces was much higher than the taxes Spanish citizens in Spain had to pay.
The Netherlands, particularly the area of Flanders, was considered entrepreneurial and wealthy, and Phillip saw the area as a cash cow who could fund his religious wars. It didn’t hurt that it gave him a chance to punish an area that was moving away from Catholicism and toward the various Protestant Denominations. All of this defending of the Catholic faith, (or going to war), left King Phillip’s empire in debt, and taxes were needed to raise funds to keep up the fight. Phillip choose the Netherlands as a primary source of income.
One year before this painting was done, the Netherlands had the worst winter on record. In a time without central heat and grocery stores on every corner, a long difficult winter meant death, food shortages, and illness. While we, in our comfortable, modern lives might view this snowy landscape as charming and cozy, a 16th century commoner would not agree. Winter is the time of death, often literal death, before the rebirth of spring. In fact, that difficult winter was just the first of many. Europe was entering what is now referred to as “the little ice age,” and the struggles to survive were very real.
In this painting we have an image of the world on Christmas Eve, with people going about their everyday lives. A world in winter, but with the promise of spring, spring is entering in the form of a young woman on a donkey. Mary is bringing hope and rebirth to a wintery world.
The story that the painting is based on is found in the gospel of Luke, Chapter 2.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
The parallels that Bruegel drew were obvious to his audience. Both Israel and the Netherlands were controlled by militaristic, foreign empires, both faced heavy taxation, and in both a new religion was being birthed. In Israel on the night of Christ birth, Christianity was born. In the Netherlands the Protestant Reformation was replacing the “old” Catholic faith.
Close Reading of The Census at Bethlehem
Before we examine all the details of this work, let’s take a look at the painting as a whole.
Most obviously, we are looking at a winter scene, one of the first snowy landscapes in European art. Bruegel is noted for his ability to paint snow, to communicate the chill in the air, and the bleak coldness of winter. The subtle varying shades of white give the snow landscape and winter sky a serene beauty. We can feel the cold.
The paint, much of it varying shades of white, was applied with a different method than most artists used. We’ve discussed painting with oils, which involved layers of glazes to achieve the luminescent and smooth finishes that were expected. This required drying time between each layer and allowed great precision in shading. That is not what Bruegel does. Alla prima or wet on wet painting is how he achieved his effects. He used thick impasto layers with broad strokes of color. It was new, different, and suited the common people he generally painted, adding a sturdiness to their robust shapes.
The composition is balanced, not just with the placements of people, buildings, and waterways, but the sense of balance is strengthened by the harmonious colors. and solidity of form. While the movement of people appear natural and random, Bruegel has brilliantly placed each grouping to form a pleasing whole
We are viewing this work from above, as if we are standing on a hill, or perhaps looking out of a window. From our perspective we can take in the activities of the entire village and appreciate the composition.
The painting has a distinct foreground where the ‘important’ action is taking place. On the far left we have the census workers and the people gathering to register. In the center, quietly and unobtrusively, we can see the Holy Family making their way across the snow. Actually, without the title there would be no reason for someone viewing this painting to think that it has anything to do with the nativity story. It appears to be a landscape with small vignettes of people doing ordinary things. And then when you look closely, there is a man leading a donkey with a pregnant woman wrapped in a blue cloak.
The background of the painting we will examine in detail, but we note here that the buildings coloring provide a unifying element to the work, connecting the foreground and background into a harmonious whole.
The work is also organized into a diagonal sweep from the left front corner to the background on the right side where a large building stands in ruins. There is a less obvious diagonal sweep going in the opposite direction from the back left to the front right, highlighted by the figures crossing the ice. The two diagonals converge on a wagon wheel, that is not attached to a wagon, but lying abandoned in the snow.
The imagery of the wheel of fortune originates in Greek mythology with the goddess Fortuna who has a wheel that she spins. Fortuna is a fickle woman and the fortunes of men rise and fall according to her whims. Her wheel can raise you up, or just as easily cast you back down. Basically, the wheel of fortune is a reminder that life cycles endlessly through the good and the bad. We can thank Dante for Christianizing the image of the wheel.
Dante pointed out that Fortuna and her wheel have no power on their own, but only as they are agents of God’s will. Fortuna must operate within that framework. After gaining Dante’s blessing the image of the wheel of fortune began to make it’s way into Christian art as a warning of the folly of ambition and pursuing worldly gains. Instead, the wheel, a reminder that man’s fate is uncertain, remind us to lay our treasures and hopes in heaven where ‘rust and moth cannot destroy.’
In a time of freezing cold, unrelenting taxes, and foreign occupation, the wheel at the center of the composition prompted the viewer to hope, to know that things can change in a moment. Yes, the wheel can bring the high down low, but it can also lift the lowly. The arrival of Mary and Joseph, below the wheel, is another prompt that the world can change quickly.
There are many details to unpack in the bottom left corner of the painting., and perhaps the most interesting is the coat of arms on the wall of the inn.
The Hapsburg Coat of Arms
If we were in any doubt that Bruegel intended his audience to connect the story of the Holy Family traveling during the Roman occupation, with the Spanish control of the Netherlands, we need look no further than the Hapsburg coat of arms hanging on the wall of the inn. King Phillip II was one in a longline of Hapsburg rulers and his coat of arms was instantly recognizable.
The Eagle was the symbol of Ancient Rome and strengthened the connection between the Jews plight in Bethlehem, and the current plight of the Dutch in Antwerp. A double headed eagle came into use to show the unification of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire. Later, and over time, the Hapsburg’s became the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire and were endorsed by the Pope, and they to, adopted the double headed eagle. The lineage and coat of arms were ways to legitimize their right to rule over such a vast empire.
By including the coat of arms Bruegel’s painting moved into the realm of social commentary. To the Dutch it was clearly a statement about the unfair treatment they received from the Hapsburg’s. Given the unflattering message of the painting, we have to ask, why were so many copies made, presumably without interference from the crown? This was the era of the Spanish Inquisition after all.
One theory is that the monarchy choose to interpret the painting as an endorsement of their rule, rather than a criticism. The Hapsburg’s had created a fictitious genealogical line that went all the way back to Julius Caesar and Charlemagne. Rulers often tried to link themselves to the Roman Empire to give themselves more credibility, and to claim they had God’s blessing on their rule. The presence of the coat of arms could be interpreted to mean the Hapsburg’s, like Charlemagne, were chosen by God to rule Europe and protect his church.
From Biblical times to the present, people have been suspicious of tax collectors. During Christ life there was good reason for that. The tax collectors collected what was due Rome, and extra for themselves. We can see in the painting that Bruegel has painted the census taker, a stand in for the tax collector, in a coat lined with a rich fur. He is a representative of the oppressive government, and appears to be paid well for his job.
Just in front of the building we see a butcher bleeding out a pig. This can reference at least two things. First, the people, who have no more to give are literally having their life-blood taken from them. Second, unable to pay with money the people are paying ‘in kind’ that is, paying their bill with what valuables they have, their livestock.
Traditionally in Northern art there are references to the sinful, fallen world that Christ has come to save. This is why nativity scenes are often placed in decrepit, ramshackle barns. Bruegel has included at least two scenes that point to the broken world Mary and Joseph are bringing their child into. One is a tavern, interestingly, housed in a dead tree. Trees are often used as imagery in the Bible, and a dead tree is haunting reminder of the deadness within a society. In the case, it’s not enough the tree is dead, but a tavern has moved in.
Note the pikes of the soldiers in the background of the tavern. Although not featured in the work, the Spanish soldiers are still there, lurking threateningly in the background.
The other scene that Bruegel uses to show the brokenness of the world is a man sitting the doorway of a house with a bell or clapper. The bell is a sign that he is a leper and is ringing his bell to warn others to stay away.
In the background of the painting is a castle in ruins. As we’ve noted above, this was commonly used to denote the broken world that Christ was coming to save. In this case, however, art historians believe an additional point is being made.
They believe Bruegel is connecting the ruins to the Catholic Church. No longer serving it’s original purpose, the church is broken, a result of it’s sinful past. A new faith, rising from the Protestant Reformation, will replace the old.
I find the children the most hopeful element of the work. The weather may be frigid, the tax collector bleeding them dry, and the soldier’s always nearby, but still the children play. And the adults help them. The butcher has handed a child a pigs bladder to blow up into a balloon. Another watches the children on the ice, a victim of an errant snowball from a nearby snow fight. Other children ice skate, or scoot baskets over the ice. We even have one chasing birds.
In each of these vignettes the children remind us that life goes on, and that hope is not lost. Ultimately, it is the child that Mary is carrying that will provide hope for a broken world, and these children add to the imagery.
Finally we come to the Holy Family. Mary sits on the donkey dressed in her traditional blue robes, and Joseph leads them both, unobserved, quietly through the snow. Mary’s blue cloak is a symbol of the divinity that she carries within her. Joseph carries his carpenter tools with him.
The donkey, and the Ox (who stares out at us,) are the traditional animals of the nativity. Isaiah 1:3 says: The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.
Israel didn’t recognize their Messiah, they went about their lives not understanding that God’s plan of redemption was unfolding in front of them. The people in this painting are equally without understanding, as Mary and Joseph are in their midst. The ox knows and he looks out of the painting directly at us as if asking, ‘Do we know, do we have understanding?’
In the midst of despair lies hope
It struck me that this is how it would have been, and how Bruegel has painted the scene. A busy, crowded town with everyone going about their business, rushing here and there, not noticing the couple, the woman who was about to give birth to the Savior. The world was on the verge of a cataclysmic event, history would be forever changed, and no one noticed.
In the midst of the despair that Bruegel was living through, and portraying in this work, lies hope. Hope in a baby.
If you have enjoyed this article, there are more in the series, just follow this link.
Advent in Art – Day 22 Caravaggio
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.