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Pieter Bruegel the Elder The Census at Bethlehem

Welcome to Day 21

I love this painting. I’ve been running short on time, and hope to come back to this soon to add some more photos and clean up the post a bit, but I’m on a deadline. There are just so many engaging pieces to this painting, that I’m going to have to skim over. You may have figured out I am partial to the Northern painters, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder is wonderful. He’s a Flemish Northern Renaissance painter, who, once he finished his training, set off to travel and learn. He went to Italy via France and traveled extensively. In 1555 he was back in Antwerp and settled in.

His return to Antwerp was during a period of unrest in both civil and religious arenas. The Netherlands was divided up into 17 areas, and was ruled by the Spanish. Phillip II was the ruler of the Hapsburg dynasty, and he was a devout Catholic. He was determined that the areas under his rule would remain Catholic and he employed brutal means to that end. Many in the Netherlands were sympathetic to the Protestant Reformation sweeping across Europe. Spain was at war with the Turks and needed money, so the people in the Netherlands were heavily taxed. Nearly 1/2 of the revenue Spain collected came from the Netherlands, their taxes being 4 times greater than the people of Spain. Tensions were running high.

This was the world of Pieter Bruegel. Bruegel was a landscape painter, social commentator, and innovator. He included groups of people going about their normal lives, playing games, getting a drink, bringing in the harvest, chopping wood. Many of his paintings focused on the lives of peasants. From this a new kind of painting developed, genre painting. Bruegel was a pioneer, and his works were original and influential. His portrayal of common people was earthy, unsentimental and varied. His paintings give us a glimpse into what day to day life was like in the 1500’s. The clothing, toys, tools in his paintings are an excellent aid to historians.

Many of his images have an edge to them, they are commentary on the injustices that he saw around him. He used satire in his art to make a point. He died in his early 40’s, and in his last illness 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 opinion and work.

So this is the context that The Census at Bethlehem was painted. A poor couple, the wife great with child, must travel a great distance because Caesar Augustus has decided he wanted a census, so that he could collect taxes. And, with the birth of this baby, a new religion was about to be born.  The civil and religious connections would have been obvious. As the Netherlands faced heavy taxes from a foreign king, and were persecuted, sometimes tortured, if they harbored Protestant sympathies they would identify with the Jewish couple, trying to live in a Roman occupied area.

During this era most believed that Jesus was born on December 25th, in the dead of winter. 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 might not agree. Winter is the time of death, before the rebirth of spring. In this painting we have an image of the world on Christmas Eve going about their everyday lives. A world in winter…but with the promise of spring, spring because Christ has come to enter everyday lives and offer hope.

Bruegel often painted Biblical scenes set in current Flemish cities with the people of his day populating them. In this painting we have a cold Christmas Eve and people are descending upon the city to pay their taxes and register. 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 if you look closely, there is a man leading a donkey with a pregnant woman wrapped in a blue cloak.

It struck me that this is how it would have been. 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.

There are so many charming details, and a few that strike me as important. I’m just going to run down some, and you can look for others by enlarging the painting. Any one grouping could be isolated and made into its own masterpiece, such is the detail Bruegel has managed to include…it’s as if we have dozens of paintings included in this one.

The painting is divided in two, a foreground and background. The left front portion has the area where people are registering and paying taxes. There is also a man slaughtering a pig. As we work our way around there are children spinning tops on the ice, another man tying on skates, someone hauling wood, and a snowball fight. There is a man standing on the bank who has a snowball that has hit his back.

There is a hut that has a man inside with clappers, the signal that he has leprosy and a begging bowl in front of the house. There is a tavern built into a dead tree. There is an area with another gathering that appears to be soldiers. Everywhere we look there are vignettes of daily life.

The work is 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, And, in the center there are two wagon wheels stuck in the snow. The spoked wheels were known as wheels of fortune, and they signified the cycle of life repeating endlessly.

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. 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 artist 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 broader strokes of color. It was new, different, and suited the common people he generally painted, adding a sturdiness and solidity to them.

The ruins in the background of the painting are thought to reference the old religion of Judaism being brought forward into the new religion of Christianity with the birth of Christ. This was also taken as a commentary on the Catholic church standing in ruins while the new reformation movement created a new faith.

Traditionally, in Northern Renaissance art, ruined buildings signify the sinful and broken world that the Christ child is entering. This is perhaps also why the odd Tavern in the dead tree, which is very shady looking, and the leper begging are included, reminders of a fallen world.

As we wrap this up let’s take a closer look at the Mary and Joseph portion of the work. Mary sits on the donkey dressed in her traditional blue robes, and Joseph leads them both. He has some of the tools of his trade attached to his belt. Next to them walks the oxen, the other traditional animal that is present at 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?’

Unlike many of the works we’ve considered, this is not a devotional painting, meant to focus our thoughts and prayers, and yet I find that it subtlety commends itself to contemplation.

If you have enjoyed this article, there are more in the series, just follow this link.

Advent in Art – Day 22 Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence


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

Metropolitan Museum of Art website

The Getty Center

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

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