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If you were dreaming of a White Christmas this year, Pieter Bruegel’s deep wintered “Census at Bethlehem” would definitely not fit your list. It is cold but not cheerful; snow glistens still slyly; it’s a white wonderland and yet a blue Christmas.
But before we set our eyes onto the painting, it is essential to grasp the aura of the artist.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder was born in Breda in 1525. In 1551, in congruence to the other painters of his age, he set off to Italy so as to absorb the air of the Renaissance. However the sensational grandeur of the Italian Masters failed to impress him. He breezed by the brilliant Botticelli, was unmindful of the magnificent Michelangelo and felt lethargic of the luxurious Raphael.
His search for his spark led him to take a detour to the Alps. That struck a chord and had a huge impact on him. Stunned by the snow, he swallowed the flurry landscapes and spat them onto his canvas on his return to the flat Flanders. His journey schooled his eye enhancing his vision of space and his fascination for nature. It is this enchantment that we encounter in today’s Christmas canvas.
In his “The Census at Bethlehem,” Bruegel presents a prologue to the Nativity of Christ. The scene takes inspiration from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 1 to 5. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered in their own towns. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth to the city of David called Bethlehem … with Mary with whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.”
Bruegel blends this narrative with his own times. He does not bid it to be Holy Land. Rather the setting is a Netherlandish harsh winter landscape of 1566. As the weather went wild, chronic economic and religious woes hit the country.
In the foreground we observe a huge crowd moving from our right to the left. A little man peers through the window at the teeming throng gathered by the door step. The clustered locals are seen handing over money as they pay their taxes. A pig is being slaughtered, an improbable sight in Palestine. This depiction suggests that the poor peasants couldn’t pay in cash and were probably rendering taxes in kind.
The very choice of the theme of the census is unconventional and revolutionary. It stirs an enquiry to the painter’s purpose. Why did Bruegel choose a quiet moment of less significance in lieu of the “in vogue” scenes of Christmas like the Nativity or the Adoration of the Magi? The answer to this question lies in the depiction of the coat of arms at the side of the building.
As the people pay their taxes, they pay not to Caesar but to the Hapsburg Emperor Phillip II of Spain. As a hereditary ruler of the provinces, Phillip II was regarded as distant and unjust. His regime was despised. In order to game the expenses incurred in war with France, he first looked at Flanders as his bait. This left the citizens burdened with abuse. Bruegel, through the “Census at Bethlehem,” cleverly voices out this oppression.
The artist also narrates to us a series of stories through his snowfall scene. The painting is crammed with detail. Every figure displays some movement. As the crimson sun sets down the horizon, men and women walk across the ice while some pick bundles of sticks to warm their homes. Romping children celebrate in the changing countryside. They skate and indulge in snow fights.
As soldiers prowl around, a man under a thatched roof is seen holding a begging bowl and a clapper, a clear indication of leprosy. Bruegel through this depiction compares the effects of the harsh winter and the rigid regime to the contraction of a socially endemic disease. The situation is coarse and crushing.
But in the midst of despair always lies hope. At the center of the painting Bruegel depicts the two wheels of fortune. As time ticks on, nothing lasts forever. In the sea of humanity, far from prominent lie the protagonists. It would take you more than a moment to find them. An exhausted woman is seen seated on a donkey as her husband leads the way, carrying along some carpentry tools.
The Holy Family is absorbed in the mundane world of grumpy, occupied, tired people. None of them realize that something world-changing is about to happen. It is frozen yet silently festive. Did they know that it was the eve of Christmas? Did they sense redemption on its way?
The painting is thus an invitation to each one of us to recognize the Savior in our midst! It is not a blue or white Christmas, but rather a discreetly hopeful and happy one, for the Savior carries tidings of comfort and joy.
Joynel Fernandes is the Assistant Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Mumbai, India. She is currently pursuing her Masters in History. Researching on Church History and Church art is her passion. She hopes to make its understanding more approachable to younger generations.