Art in Advent 2015: The Census at Bethlehem
The Census at Bethlehem (also known as The Numbering at Bethlehem) is an oil-on-panel by the Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegal The Elder painted in 1566. Acquired in 1902, it is currently held and exhibited at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels
As is often the case Bruegel treats a biblical story as a contemporary event. Arguably the painting that invented the Christmas card snowy scene the painting is much more than a nativity scene, the picture depicts the arrival of Mary and Joseph in a Dutch village under the hammer and rule of a foreign army and in the grip of a cruel winter. Reference to particular political events has been adduced – in this case, the severity of the Spanish Administration in the southern Netherlands
Bruegel focuses 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 suppress 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. It speaks to the 21st century in an extraordinary way.
In a manger at Bethlehem they saw Jesus
In a carpenter’s shop at Nazareth they saw Jesus
On a cross at Calvary they saw Jesus
In an upper room and in a garden they saw Jesus
In the birth of a child and in the love of a parent we see Jesus
In our meeting with one another we see Jesus
In our doubts and questioning we see Jesus.
Seeing him, Lord, help us to love him
To make room for him and to share our lives with him.