Bruegel's reimagining of a Biblical story in contemporary terms
At first glance, a number of remarkable things catch the eye in The Census of Bethlehem, a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. However, the disordered feel of the scene does not hinder the viewer's interpretation. This rich and diverse picture seduces onlookers with its scale and the balance of colours and composition.
The eye lingers first of all on the vast snowy expanse where everyone is going about their work. The viewer's curiosity is then caught by the different overlapping scenes which surround the main subject and give the piece its title, The Census at Bethlehem. Is this biblical subject not, however, just a pretext? As often happens with the Flemish master, are there not several possible interpretations?
The point of view, as is often the case with Bruegel, is higher than the scene itself. Like the man leaning around the shutter in the foreground, the artist seems to be observing the village from some place higher up. Like Bruegel, the viewer's eye is drawn to the horizon where the sun is rising.
The Christmas vigil will start in a few hours. People busy themselves, rapt in their own lives.
Like a snapshot, Bruegel captures the bustle of a Brabant village during his time. Each character is depicted in action.
Children play with spinning tops or slide on the frozen water, while a couple advances cautiously on the ice.
Jean-Philippe Theyskens, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, talks about the children's games in The Census at Bethlehem.
A diagonal line divides the painting from top left to bottom right. This oblique separation, between the close-up space in the bottom left and the far distance in the top right, is a legacy of the first Flemish landscape masters, Joachim Patinir and Herri met de Bles.
The path which stretches from the inn in the bottom corner towards the ruins at the far end of the village, follows another diagonal which intersects the other precisely at the centre of the piece, where the painter has placed a single wheel, detached from a cart.
The balance between the geometric size of the buildings and the hunched forms of the people is perfect. The vertical lines created by the trees punctuate the composition and give it a sense of perspective.
Jean-Philippe Theyskens, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, talks about the lines in the composition of The Census at Bethlehem.
In his Treatise on Landscape Painting, published in 1939, painter and art theorist André Lhote, already formulated this idea about the Flemish master's landscapes.
"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"
(by André Lhote, Treatise on Landscape Painting, 1939).
The composition's balanced appearance is strengthened by harmonious colour distribution. While ocres, whites and grey-greens dominate, splashes of red on clothing or a hat catch the eye from time to time.
While everything in the painting feels controlled, we are nevertheless far from the rigorous construction which dominates Italian art from the same time period. Bruegel presents his own, more intuitive arrangement.
The expressivity of bodies and faces foreshadows the research of some 17th century artists such as Rubens or Luca Cambiaso.
In their quest to associate emotion and expression, they will go as far as to search for the link between the physiognomy of some animals and the expression of human figures, as in this study by Luca Cambiaso.
In regards to the used materials, Bruegel has moved beyond the legacy of the Flemish Primitives.
At the beginning of the 15th century, artists such as Jan Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden glorified oil paintings with the use of a glaze.
This old technique overlays fine translucent layers of pigments, mixed with linseed oil, giving the materials a very subtle finish. As light passes through these coloured films, it gives the colours an unbeatable impression of depth.
Bruegel worked by mixing layers that hadn’t dried completely. This technique is called "alla prima" or "wet on wet" in English. In contrast to the Flemish Primitives from the previous century, the light effects are not due to transparency, but overlay of material and thick impasto brush strokes of colours, like in this drape.
Anxious to depict the life of his contemporaries in its daily reality, Bruegel appears to be an inside observer of all the trivial aspects of living. This work offers a rich inventory of popular clothing, childrens' games and pastimes, utensils and tools. Numerous objects from daily life are represented in minute detail.
The representations of daily scenes at a precise time of the year, in this case the night before Christmas, is a reference to the illustrated Books of Hours, famous from the Middle Ages onwards.
In these manuscripts, each month is abundantly illustrated by seasonal tasks: harvesting, pruning trees, taking the cattle in for winter, etc.
While all the characters in this village scene go about their business unaware of the viewer's gaze, a bull in the foreground seems to examine us curiously. His round eye captures the attention. We also become aware of the presence of two characters at the animal's side.
The bull is accompanying a carpenter and a woman sitting on the back of a donkey, wrapped in a large blue cape. It is not difficult to identify these two figures as Joseph and Mary who, upon the orders of Cesar Augustus, were travelling to Bethlehem to register in the census of the Roman Empire.
However, the scene does not take place in ancient Judea, Bruegel sets the scene in his native 16th century Low Countries.
Jean-Philippe Theyskens, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, tells us about Mary and Joseph's arrival in Bethlehem on the night before Christmas.
This practice was not unheard of and was already common in 15th century paintings. We can see this in The Annunciation by the Master of Flémalle who, a century earlier, set this religious scene against a bourgeois interior.
This transposition of a biblical scene into a contemporary setting may also be a reference to Mystery plays, theatrical scenes played out in front of churches from the Middle Ages.
By burying the biblical scene in the hustle and bustle of the village, like an anecdotal detail, Bruegel encourages us to reinterpret the activity taking place near the inn.
The scene taking place in front of the inn is, in fact, a financial transaction. A person is giving his money, probably to a tax collector, while another collector fills out a register.
Overhanging the scene is another element which supports the theory that it depicts an official gathering: a red cupboard with the Habsburg coat of arms hanging on the front of the inn.
Are we in fact looking at a denouncement of the heavy taxes imposed by the Spanish regime in the Low Countries?
Certain art historians have sometimes interpreted the pig's slaughter in political terms. It is possible 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.
Jean-Philippe Theyskens, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, talks about the possible political interpretation of the scene in front of the inn.
The Census at Bethlehem has a remarkable longevity and, due to its success, was copied many times. There are 13 known copies to date, of which three are signed and dated by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium hold a version which allows to make a comparison between the two artists' work. The two versions are separated by 44 years.
A comparative study between the original and the copies helps us to learn more about Pieter Bruegel the Elder's working methods and observe differences, particularly regarding the paint layers and the underlying sketch.
The most striking difference is the absence of one of the foreground scenes: a man tying his skates near to a cask with a bird perched on top. This missing detail leaves a gap in the son's composition. When we see the precision with which Brueghel the Younger copies his father, it seems unlikely that this missing detail was merely forgotten.
These differences lead us to think that Brueghel the Younger did not have access to his father's original works. Bruegel's paintings, which were already very popular in his lifetime, were sold on the market very quickly to enrich prestigious private collections.
This would explain why certain details were misinterpreted by his son who, for example, depicts the wheel in the centre of the composition as a sack of grain.
In order to paint such copies, Pieter Brueghel the Younger probably had to start with preparatory sketches or scale prints saved by his grandmother, the miniaturist Mayken Verhulst. Unfortunately, none of these drawings are known to us today.
Véronique Vandamme & Jennifer Beauloye
Joost Vander Auwera
Peter van den Brink (dir.), L'entreprise Brueghel, Gand Ludion, 2001.
THANKS GO TO
Véronique Bücken, Joost Vander Auwera, Jean-Philippe Theyskens, Laurent Germeau, Pauline Vyncke, Lies van de Cappelle, Karine Lasaracina, Isabelle Vanhoonacker, Gladys Vercammen-Grandjean, Marianne Knop.
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : J. Geleyns / Ro scan