What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Masterpiece: The Census at Bethlehem (c. 1566)

“You can use a mount of any format you like to cover parts of this extraordinary painting: it will always appear composed. Each element is set out in such a way that, together with the adjacent element, it constitutes a scintillating composition… These seemingly scattered elements could not be more ordered. But this uncanny science is hidden by the work’s engaging nature.  The public does not pay attention to hidden forces.”
~ André Lhote on the Census at Bethlehem (Treatise on Landscape Painting, 1939)

I toyed with the idea of a looking at a Nativity scene for my Christmas masterpiece, and there are certainly plenty of incredible iconic works; but in the end, the more I studied The Census at Bethlehem, the more it related to me on a human level.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Flemish Renaissance Master, an important influence on the Dutch Golden Age, and THE pioneer of winter scenes.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Elder c. 1566

The year before The Census at Bethlehem was completed in 1566, the Netherlands and much of Europe had been in the grip of the coldest winter for a hundred years. Hardships were experienced by the population on a biblical scale; such as famine, disease, riots and a brutal occupation by the Spanish, all of which had hit the population hard.

There was no respite from these seasonal struggles, as the winters in Europe for the next 250 years proved to be among the coldest on record, (certainly harsh enough to justify the ominous phrase, “Winter is coming,” used to great effect in Game of Thrones), leading to that time being dubbed as a ‘little Ice Age’. It was so bitterly cold that even the river Thames froze over, which was recorded for posterity on canvas in 1677 by Abraham Hondius, a Dutch painter living in London.

The Frozen Thames by Abraham Hondius c. 1677

You might expect to see a painting of The Census at Bethlehem depicting the central characters of a pregnant Mary and Joseph to actually be in Bethlehem, the ancestral home of Mary’s betrothed, Joseph – but Bruegel takes his subject and his audience on a journey to the City of David in his Flemish homeland – a snowy Brabant village.

According to the Gospel of Luke 21, 1-5:
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David. In order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was with child.”

The decree by Caesar Augustus that all citizens be registered is portrayed on this 116 x 164.5 cm oil on oak panel, and by painting this biblical event in a contemporary setting perhaps Bruegel is also commenting on the hefty taxes imposed by the Spanish regime in the Low Countries.

However, it seems that Luke may have taken poetic licence in his gospel:

“The historical problems with Luke are even more pronounced. For one thing, we have relatively good records for the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there is no mention anywhere in any of them of an empire-wide census for which everyone had to register by returning to their ancestral home. And how could such a thing even be imagined? Joesph returns to Bethlehem because his ancestor David was born there. But David lived a thousand years before Joseph. Are we to imagine that everyone in the Roman Empire was required to return to the homes of their ancestors from a thousand years earlier? If we had a new worldwide census today and each of us had to return to the towns of our ancestors a thousand years back—where would you go? Can you imagine the total disruption of human life that this kind of universal exodus would require? And can you imagine that such a project would never be mentioned in any of the newspapers? There is not a single reference to any such census in any ancient source, apart from Luke. Why then does Luke say there was such a census? The answer may seem obvious to you. He wanted Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, even though he knew he came from Nazareth … there is a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Micah that a savior would come from Bethlehem. What were these Gospel writers to do with the fact that it was widely known that Jesus came from Nazareth? They had to come up with a narrative that explained how he came from Nazareth, in Galilee, a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of, but was born in Bethlehem, the home of King David, royal ancestor of the Messiah.
~ Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible & Why We Don’t Know About Them

Certain art historians have sometimes interpreted the pig’s slaughter in political terms. It is feasible to see this as a metaphor for the peasants who were bled dry by excessive taxes levied by Philip II of Spain, which were particularly intolerable during the harsh, famine-ridden winters.

Bruegel must have surmised that the painting would hold greater meaning if the people of 16th Century Flanders could relate to the hope of a better future with the happy and uplifting message of the birth of Jesus if it somehow took place in the heart of their own difficult circumstances.

This magnificent painting is now on display at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, a city Bruegel made his home from 1563 onwards. He was also active as a painter in Antwerp prior to his last decade. His pigments were sourced mainly in Antwerp, and were ground in his studio.

The Census at Bethlehem has an abundance of characters going about their chilly business on Christmas Eve, amidst the religious fervour of the birth of Christ, where the Flemish landscape is also a major component. Everywhere you look there is a hive of activity, the freezing landscape is teeming with life.

I like that we have an elevated view onto the scene, with Joseph leading Mary (her face barely visible), perched on her trusty steed (donkey), with an ox in tow, unobtrusively blending into the centre foreground, heading towards the hubbub at the Inn.

The Census at Bethlehem – detail of Joseph and Mary

The gathering of people clamouring to register is surely a hint that there’s not going to be any room at the Inn, even one with a ruling Habsburg crest on the wall.

The Census at Bethlehem – detail of the crowded inn

The lack of decent accommodation, as we know, meant Mary had to give birth to the Saviour in a stable.

I take my hat off to Mary, there was no such thing as Entonox, epidurals, or any pain relief two millennia back, let alone a comfortable bed. Hay might have been okay, but one can imagine it must have been a tad draughty.  I’m not sure I would have coped with a procession of wise men, shepherds and worshippers just hours after giving birth in such circumstances, but thankfully Mary rose to occasion for the sake of humanity!

The perspective in The Census at Bethlehem pulls our gaze towards the bottom left as this appears closer, and the tall tree with the setting sun visible through its high, barren branches seems to demarcate the painting in invisible diagonals from top left to bottom right and bottom left to top right, intersecting in the middle where a single spoked carriage wheel lays in the snow.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Elder c. 1566

Decay and disease is also part of the picture, as a man with leprosy is sheltered in the little hut.

The whiteness of the snow in the centre ground and on the slanting roof tops dazzles against the grey sky and bleakness of unforgiving winter weather, the light in the darkness of winter, as Jesus will become the light of the world.

In the top right we can see a ruined castle, (thought to be based on the towers and gates of Amsterdam Castle), a parallel with the dying of an old belief system, or a Pagan way of life, contrasted with the construction of newer buildings and a church across the frozen river, an allegory for a new religion – Christianity.

The Census at Bethlehem – detail of the castle ruins

Despite the bone numbing cold, many ordinary citizens have ventured out into the snow, from weary travellers to local residents busily preparing for the Christmas mass and celebration.

To think that children over four hundred and fifty years ago were doing just what children would do today, even in the midst of unimaginable cold, generates sympathy with our European ancestors. The joy of skating on ice, throwing snowballs (I loved the touch of white powder stuck to the man’s left shoulder standing with his back to us on the edge of the water), and being generally engaged in wintry play warms your heart.

The Census at Bethlehem – detail of the children

Large barrels of grain are stationary, ready to feed the people with much needed sustenance, even as their souls will be nourished by the coming birth…

The Census at Bethlehem was a popular painting during Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s lifetime, as were pretty much all of his works, which tended to depict the solid, robust and stocky figures of peasants (quite a few engaged in matrimonial and celebratory settings), combining landscapes with ordinary activities, making him an early pioneer of genre painting.

It is said the artist (who would have been categorised as upper-middle class in his day), used to dress as a peasant to gain access to such events and closely observe their activities.

The Census at Bethlehem was copied 14 times, 13 of them were known to be produced by his son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger (spelt conspicuously with an ‘h’); he knew he was on to a good thing! The 14th copy (painted in 1611) caused particular excitement in the art world when it surfaced in 2013 and came to the attention of a respected Old Masters art dealer, Johnny Van Haeften, having been in private ownership for 400 years.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Breughel the Younger

There are subtle differences. The son, a skilled artist in his own right, is bound to stamp his own personality into his art after all, but the most striking for me is the vibrancy of the colour, and it lacks the sunset. It just looks, well cleaner, and not as gritty as his father’s…

Both sons were trained as painters by their maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, a sixteenth-century miniature, tempera and watercolour painter, (hailed as one of the four most important female artists in the Low Countries by Lodovico Guicciardini in 1567), due to the death of their father they were very young. Bruegel’s second son, Jan Brueghel the Elder, differentiated from his brother (who solely focused on replicas of his father’s paintings), with his own original works and became a key figure in the transition to the Dutch Baroque style, frequently collaborating with Peter Paul Rubens.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–69)

The Painter and the Connoisseur c. 1565 (only known possible self-portrait)

Bruegel was a member of the Antwerp Painter’s Guild. He was known to work by mixing layers that hadn’t dried completely, a technique called ‘alla prima’ or ‘wet on wet’ in English. In contrast to the Flemish artists from the previous century, the light effects are not due to transparency, but the overlay of material and thick impasto brush strokes of colours. This innovation was started by Heironymous Bosch, who was the premier influence on Bruegel, as well as the Italian Renaissance.

In other places, whilst the layers are very thin, Bruegel plays with them to obtain stunning nuances, particularly of the white shades. Bruegel was a master of depicting snowy surfaces and winter skies. Probably his most famous painting is The Hunters in the Snow (c. 1564).  It’s an amazing snowscape that gives a visual gift of desolate beauty and a sense of vast wintry territory in one of the world’s most revered landscapes.

Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder c. 1565

Bruegel’s travels to Italy and the influence of the mountainous landscape he would have encountered on his journey in the form of the Alps are juxtaposed against the flat fields of Flanders.

The Hunters in the Snow captures something elemental about our common experience of winter, a deep need for shelter, security and warmth against the stark nothingness surrounding our existence. It also offers the viewer a cinematic position over the first winter landscape created in western art.

I’m shivering just looking at it!

I am reminded of the toughness and resourcefulness of the people of that time, who didn’t have central heating during the ‘little Ice Age’. My brood complained about not having any heating or hot water for five days after our gas combi boiler was condemned a few weeks ago. Woolly jumpers were promptly resurrected from the bottom of drawers.

Bruegel in Vienna this winter…

To commemorate the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder a major exhibition of three quarters of his surviving work is being hosted at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Here is a link to his complete oeuvre of ‘Boschian’ allegories, proverbs, religious subjects, landscapes (including human forms) and genre peasant paintings.

Time is rapidly ticking by and I must attend to my brood, plus my usual endless list of last minute preparations, as I am blessed to have all my children together for the first time in a long time this Christmas.

I’d like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to my readers for the instances you visited or shared my blog in 2018 and wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year! I hope to bring you some interesting and worthy posts in 2019…

Peace, Joy and Love be With You… ✨🙏🎄

“Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.” ~ C.S. Lewis

Christmas Eve has settled upon us once again, with its magical promise of celebrations, joy and peace, and the prospect of a tasty roast dinner in good company and a present or two for the children…

The Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Altdorfer

As is usual at this time of year I get a tad overwrought at my workload. I do love making my children happy, and spending time with my family, but the preparations are time consuming and stressful. By Christmas I’m usually done for.

I felt this year I was managing better than previous festive holidays, but in my perceived invincibility my body had other ideas.

I convinced myself I didn’t have time to slow down, I was ramping it up another level. I had cards to write, gifts to wrap, the house to clean and tidy and a pile of laundry resembling the north face of the Eiger.

On top of that I was still concerned for my eldest son who had recently had a stint in hospital with a pneumothorax and is having to go back to cardiology for follow up tests. He doesn’t live near us so that proved an added challenge.

So much for super mum – I have been forced to slow down, to stop and take stock.

The two days of being bed ridden with every bone, sinew and muscle aching, my leaden limbs screaming yet listless, as my body was overtaken by a vicious fever, took my mind off everything other than trying not to expire.

My condition alternated between shivering so violently my whole body was shaking and my teeth were rattling in my mouth, and so I would pull on yet another jumper and feel like a yeti, only to find I was sweating for England an hour later and throw all my layers off. In between I tried to breathe through a heavy chest, ceaseless coughing and a burning throat.

You’ve probably guessed I don’t do illness. It’s made me appreciate my health, which has been excellent this year. I just had to get this flu out of the way.  Luckily my girls weathered it better.

So I have emerged from my sick bed sounding like I smoke fifty a day, but grateful to be feeling vaguely human again. The house is still a bomb site, the presents still need wrapping, but the most important thing is being able to share love and goodwill with friends and family.

I’m even resigned to the shenanigans of our recent trip to the cinema with the family to see The Last Jedi. I’m not sure the force was with us that day…

I turned around in a car park adjacent to the cinema, dropping the kids off, only to find a vile individual filming us for the purposes of obtaining a parking fine. We were there for a grand total of two minutes. I commented that a little Christmas spirit wouldn’t go amiss, but it fell on deaf ears. She had chosen to work for a company without any moral fibre or human decency.

So I wasn’t surprised when a £100 fine landed on our door mat yesterday morning. I’ll never understand why people want to make a living from pure meanness of spirit.

Despite mounting bills there is much to be thankful for.

L’adoration des Bergers by Geroge de La Tour c. 1644

I want to extend my heartfelt thanks and gratitude to all of you who have either purchased my novel, The Virtuoso, followed my blog, read my posts, liked them and perhaps shared them on social media. It means so much to me that something I have touched on may have proved helpful and worthy of a second thought.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas wherever you are and whoever you are with, and all my good wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2018.

I am excited and bursting with creative ideas for next year. This year is almost over, and I don’t feel as though I’ve had a chance to catch my breath, let alone achieve anything worthwhile. It has been a roller-coaster, probably with more downs than ups, but in hindsight perhaps a vital stepping stone to greater things.

Have you also found 2017 flew by a trifle fast?

The clock is ticking and I must resume decking my small hall with boughs of holly and the like.

My thoughts drift to Mary, who, over two thousand years ago may have wanted a different birth scenario but who had to put up with her unborn infant being hunted by mad King Herod and making do with a draughty stable full of animals to give birth in.

But she probably didn’t complain about her lot. She had a devoted husband who did his best to support her, and instead she gave us the light of the world and his message of eternal salvation.

The Nativity by Bartolome Esteban Murillo

My daughter did her class assembly last week, during which I learnt about the Festival of the Radishes in Mexico. ‘Noche de Rabanos’ as it is known, is celebrated by farmers in Oaxaca on Christmas Eve.

Most of my lot don’t eat radishes on the grounds that they find the taste quite disagreeable, but thought carving them into nativity scenes and traditional Mexican symbols an artistic and an unusual way to celebrate the Nativity.

Over the centuries there have been many images in a multitude of mediums from mosaics to altar panels, murals, stained glass, oil paintings, architectural features and sculptures depicting the Nativity, perhaps the greatest story ever told…and now with radishes!

Oaxaca farmers have celebrated an annual ‘Night of the Radishes’ festival for the last century:

I feel it’s fitting to round off with a little Christmas confusion from Joshua Bell and Igudesman & Joo:

From his album Musical Gifts – Greensleeves with Joshua Bell and Chick Corea:

Peace, joy and love be with you…

“I truly believe that if we keep telling the Christmas story, singing the Christmas songs, and living the Christmas spirit, we can bring joy and happiness and peace to this world.” ~ Norman Vincent Peale