BBC 4 repeated the Private Life of a Christmas Masterpiece series this week. The Private Life programmes are, I think, amongst the best of TV art documentaries, and the episode on Pieter Bruegel’s Census At Bethlehem grips with its account of a painting that is much more than a simple nativity scene. In fact, of course, its not a nativity scene at all. Bruegel has focussed on the busy moments before the holy couple are settled in the stable – the arrival for the census at their place of birth of a milling crowd of the poor and hungry – ordinary men, women and children bundled up against the cold.
For this is 16th-century Flanders, under Spanish rule. By the door where the crowd are registering is a plaque bearing the double-headed eagle, symbol of the Hapsburg emperor, Philip II. The men and women at the counter are laying down coins: the Netherlands paid half the tax revenues of the entire Hapsburg empire and four times as much as the Spanish themselves. He painted the picture in 1566, a time of rebellion against both Spanish rule and the Catholic church. A consciousness of Spanish tyranny and slaughter is found in other paintings and drawings by Bruegel, particularly Massacre of the Innocents. In the year that this was painted, Philip said he would rather sacrifice 100,000 people than tolerate heresy in the Netherlands and sent the Duke of Alba to supress rebellion.
This is a profoundly democratic painting. Bruegel portrays Mary and Joseph as no larger than the other figures in the painting, nor are they placed centre stage: they are people amongst the crowd. It is a secular portrayal – a reflection of the new ideas about individual and society emerging at the dawn of the Renaissance. Paintings would now contain worldly details, artists would be acute observers of animals, plants, landscapes, and – in the new genre of portraiture – people.
In the centre of the painting are two large wooden O’s made by the wheels of some hay wagons. For Bruegel and his viewers, the circle was a symbol of eternity and represented the continuing cycle of life in death and birth. It is a magnificent painting, depicting a world filled with suffering and displacement, but which has redemption at its heart.
In 1939, W H Auden, inspired by seeing this and other paintings by Bruegel, including Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, wrote Musee des Beaux Arts:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow, in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
- In pursuit of Bruegel in Brussels and Antwerp: for a more detailed discussion of ‘Census at Bethlehem’
- Pieter Bruegel the Elder: complete works