Bruegel: The Census at Bethlehem

Following again Gerry, retired college teacher living in Liverpool, UK, in his pilgrimage, we discover The Census at Bethlehem:

…Later that day we talked about what we had seen, and I was struck by Rita’s suggestion (made with reference to The Census at Bethlehem, but I think it applies to many of his works) that when Bruegel painted an event in the past, he saw the past through the lens of the present (and vice-versa).  He sees the past, but in terms of his own present; now, when we look at one of his paintings we see it in our own present, and a new layer of meaning is added, as if it were a palimpsest.

Nearby in this amazing room is The Census at Bethlehem itself. Although Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts draws its central motif from the Icarus painting, the references in the first verse are to The Census at Bethlehem. The painting depicts Mary and Joseph in the snow of Flanders, he leading with a red hat and long carpenter’s saw over his shoulder. They are surrounded by Auden’s people ‘eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’.  And here are the children, ‘skating on a pond at the edge of the wood’ with their spinning tops and impromptu toboggans, sliding on the ice.

The Census at Bethlehem: detail

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 The Census at Bethlehem, the biblical scene is so completely integrated into Bruegel’s depiction of a Flemish village on a late winter afternoon that you might miss the holy couple on their way to be counted. On the left is the tavern which is serving as the census-taking station.  However, what Bruegel has chosen to portray is not enumeration, but rather taxes being paid:

‘And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed’

The Census at Bethlehem 1566: detail

The people standing in front of the window are paying their taxes, while the officials inside a re receiving the coins and registering the amount in ledgers.  In 1566, when Bruegel painted this picture, taxes imposed on the Netherlands amounted to half the tax revenues of the Spanish Hapsburg Empire.  A year later, the Duke of Alba arrived to root out Protestantism and impose additional taxation.  To drive home the point Bruegel paints in a small detail next to the window where the taxes are being collected: a plaque with the Hapsburg double eagle emblem.

The Census at Bethlehem: detail

As with many Bruegel paintings, you don’t know where to start looking: there is no centre, everything is happening at once. It’s the small details that draw you in and hold your attention – which is why seeing these works in the flesh is such a different experience to looking at a reproduction.

The Census at Bethlehem: detail

It’s a Flemish village on a late winter afternoon. People are going about their daily activities, bundled up against the cold.  In the distance two people enter the village church. Someone passes by on a donkey.  You think about all time being present, the cycle of a life turning from birth to the hours before death.

The Census at Bethlehem: detail

The village pond and the stream are sheets of ice.  The cold chills to the bone, and  a man pisses against the wall of a house.

The Census at Bethlehem: detail

Nearby, a group of heavily-muffled villagers are gathered around a brazier, warming their hands.

The Census at Bethlehem: detail

A hollow tree with a sign of swan is serving as an impromptu bar; ale is being poured from a flagon and a group of soldiers with their pikes natter by a wall.

The Census at Bethlehem: detail

Essential routines continue: firewood has been collected in the nearby countryside and is being unloaded from a cart.

The Census at Bethlehem: detail

Supplies in sacks are being unloaded.

The Census at Bethlehem: detail

Meanwhile, children enjoy themselves – skating on the ice, and having a snowball fight.  One youth trips another, sending him sprawling in the snow.

The Census at Bethlehem: detail
The Census at Bethlehem: detail

In the foreground, a pig is being slaughtered, a seasonal bonus for rural communities as the year drew to a close.  Unnoticed and unremarked, Joseph and Mary make their way into this bustling scene.

The Census at Bethlehem: detail

Hours later, a child is born.  Bruegel painted the Adoration of the Christ child by the three Kings three times.  None of the works show the scene with the splendour or idealization that was considered appropriate in Catholic orthodoxy.  In this room at the Musee des Beaux Arts hangs the earliest of the paintings, The Adoration of the Kings, done in 1559.

Adoration of the Wise Men, 1569

Unlike the others, this one was painted on canvas rather than wood and is faded and in poor condition.  Bruegel has surrounded the central figures with a large crowd of people, some in Flemish peasant costume, others in Middle Eastern dress.

Adoration of the Wise Men 1569: detail
Adoration of the Wise Men 1569: detail

In the near distance, behind the manger, Bruegel has painted an elephant.

Adoration of the Wise Men 1569: detail

In Painting Life: The Art of Pieter Bruegel, The Elder, Robert L. Bonn writes that he found Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap so powerful and full of meaning he could not pass it by. He had to give it a second look and, though he did not realize it at the time, was destined to think about the painting for years afterwards:

Painted in 1565, [Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap] depicts feelings we all have about social change. At first sight, it appears to be a straightforward, idyllic winter scene of a Flemish village, complete with snow-capped houses and skaters enjoying an afternoon of leisure. A city looms in the background of an idealized rural village. A large crow, far too ominous to be just another bird, is perched on a branch in the upper right corner. The other birds bear a curious resemblance to the humans. Both the crows and humans are painted mostly in black. The two birds perched on the branch of the tree that overhangs the pond are painted the same size as the people skating. We are left to wonder. Could it be that the birds and the people share some common predicament? Given the trap, could the predicament be one that foreshadows some kind of impending doom?

To put it another way, Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap is far more than a 16th century Flemish landscape. The painting makes you think. The more you think about it, the more you wonder what Bruegel was trying to portray. Are the birds in the lower right corner about to be caught in the trap because they have taken the bait too casually? Or, is it the people who are in danger, although seemingly skating without a care in the world, on what is all-too-thin ice?

Countryside in Winter with Trap and Birds, 1565

The inhabitants of a village are enjoying themselves on a frozen river. In the foreground under a high tree a bird trap has been set up. It’s an old door propped up on a stick; if you pull the string attached to the stick the trap will slam shut. This motif (coupled with the hole in the ice which the skaters seem oblivious of) has often been interpreted as an allegory:  the trap will soon kill the birds, the ice can give way under the weight of the people and the hole in the ice is a danger to the heedless skater. The painting therefore alludes to the precariousness of existence.

It is also possible that Bruegel simply wanted to paint an ordinary village scene, and tackle the challenge of representing snow in paint.  Writing in The Guardian,  Jonathan Jones made the point that in 1565 there was a particular reason why this would be at the forefront of a painter’s thoughts:

Bruegel invented the snow scene, a unique achievement. All the other genres of painting – still life, portraiture, battles and histories, landscape – originate in antiquity. Depictions of snow originate with one man, and one terrible winter.The year 1565 saw the coldest winter anyone could remember. The world turned white, birds froze, fruit trees died, the old and young faded away. It was a shock – and a foreboding. This seemed to be more than just a cold winter. The climate was perceptibly changing, and that is what Bruegel’s snow scenes eerily record. All of them – from Hunters in the Snow painted in 1565, to Census in Bethlehem in 1566, to The Adoration of the Magi in 1567 – were made in response to that year and what it presaged.

The climate was changing dramatically and dangerously, although in the opposite direction from today’s impending crisis. The world was getting colder. Temperatures dropped globally in the Renaissance, so severely that climatologists call the era from 1400 to 1850 the Little Ice Age. The winter of 1565 was one of the first when everyone could see something had changed. But what was to be done?This was a pre-industrial society that had only the most limited control over its environment. The Little Ice Age was a naturally caused phenomenon, and humanity – puny then in the face of nature – could only try to adapt. Bruegel’s paintings are not just prophecies. They are recipes of adaptation, illustrating new ways to live with the cold: how to inhabit it, even enjoy it. Ice and snow turn the world upside-down. In Bruegel’s paintings, the very chill that threatens life provokes vitality. People don’t just shiver in the snow. In his Census at Bethlehem, while adults huddle miserably, children skate and sledge on the ice. … Bruegel captured humanity’s double relationship with winter: we fear it and we love it. Surviving winter is part of what makes us human. For … Bruegel, whiteness is wondrous, frightening – and the world would be a poorer place without it.