Bruegel’s Christmas Paintings

It’s time for a seasonal post! Personally, at Christmastime, I reflect on some of Bruegel’s paintings: The Census At Bethlehem, The Adoration of the Magi, and The Massacre of the Innocents.

Bruegel was born around 1525, probably in Breda, and died in 1569 — a short life for such a great painter. His early work used peasants and their world to illustrate such themes as the Seven Deadly Sins and The Months of the Year — the painting now known as Hunters In The Snowis January from that series. Many of Bruegel’s paintings have been lost over the years and some are known only from etchings or other prints depicting his subject.

Around 1562 Bruegel’s paintings suddenly took on  a new look. He had been influenced to some extent by Bosch and now produced several paintings with a nightmarish quality similar to the earlier master. Mad Meg shows a deranged woman wandering a sort of Hell populated by monsters and demons and The Triumph of Death has an army of skeletons besieging a small group of living humans. The Dance of Death was a common European theme but Bruegel’s representation of Death as an army is unusual. These paintings seem to me either directly influenced by political events or else demonstrate the wonderful qualities of  an artist’s antennae, for Europe was descending into decades of war and horror.

The Netherlands was a loose conglomerate of cities and principalities which was transferred from the Holy Roman Empire to the direct rule of Spain in 1555. The Habsburg Emperor had been relatively tolerant on religious matters, but his son, King Phillip of Spain, was a staunch Catholic who instituted harsh measures against Netherlands Calvinism. By 1559, hangings were commonplace. In 1566 the Dutch people erupted in a fury of iconoclasm, stripping churches of ornamentation. Spain saw this as uprest that required quelling and sent in troops. This begins the Dutch Revolt which later segues into the Thirty Years War — the Dutch ellide the entire series of events into the Eighty Years War.

Bruegel died as the real horror was beginning; he did not see his birth city razed nor the destruction of Antwerp where he lived and painted. Still, he saw enough and there is a tension through the three Christmas paintings that reflects that of 1555 – 1569. There is no telling the exact order in which these paintings were produced, but the Christmas story chronology follows the same escalation of events as in the Netherlands.

The Census at Bethlehem illustrates the account in the second chapter of Luke.

The Census at Bethlehem

Between 1555 and 1559, Spanish authorities re-organized the Netherlands under a governor-general and increased the numbers of dioceses. Whether or not there were such assemblies as the one Bruegel shows in his painting, there was certainly the sense of orders imposed from above. In the painting we see a vast congery of villagers working at their winter trades, children playing on the ice, and a crowd gathered around the door of the Inn where a clerk is processing paper.  At the bottom center there is Joseph leading the donkey that carries his pregnant wife. They, too, are going to the Inn but we know there is no room for them there. Nor is there any notice of them by the great mass of people occupied with their own lives and ignorant of the great event that is to occur in their town.

Next we have the Adoration of the Magi, Matthew 2. The stable is in the extreme lower left of the painting. We catch a glimpse of the glory within as the magi kneel in the doorway. No one pays them any attention. Just as in the previous painting, the world wags on, not seeing the importance of what is going on. Nor does anyone seem distressed at the soldiers who have appeared in their town and lounge about as the magi pass by them.

Adoration of the Magi in the Snow

Great events catch up with the village in the Massacre of the Innocents. Herod has ordered the death of all male children two and under. The holy family has fled into Egypt, but Herod does not know that. So a group of armored Spanish lancers carrying the double-headed eagle banner of the Habsburgs has sealed off the road to the town and watches over the slaughter. They are bored professionals; one of them is taking a piss against a wall at the upper left. The dirty work is being performed by mercenary thugs hired throughout central Europe, the main forces of the Eighty Years War. One of them kills a child, others prod babies’ corpses to make certain that they are dead. The officers have plumes in their hats, the lower ranks spend their pay and loot on fancy clothes like striped pants so they can strut about like the bravos they think themselves to be. These young men commit the crime while their officers and the Spanish regulars and their bearded commander, observe.

The Massacre of the Innocents

Their are two versions of Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents. The one illustrated above is in Vienna and is in bad shape. The better-preserved version is in England but, lo and behold, the massacre has been transformed into a simple looting! Those are pigs being slaughtered, not children, and the women weep for their loss of produce rather than the babes they once held to their breast. Sometime in the early 17th Century, an owner of the painting decided that it was too horrible to look at and had the offensive bits painted over.

Fancy Pants murders a child, left, or slaughters a pig, right.

The English owners began the process of restoration but stopped, thinking that the bowdlerized painting had historical signifigance and in this they were certainly correct for, when the painting was censored, it was in the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, a great collector of art. When Rudolf cracked down on Bohemian Protestants around 1609, even Catholics were appalled. Perhaps this was when he had the Massacre painted over. Because this is the thing about such leaders: they hate to see their deeds memorialized in a true manner, they prefer to see themselves as holy crusaders in the service of the greater Good even as they destroy villages and murder peasants and otherwise aid the Triumph of Death. Bruegel was said to be a man of great humor and wit; he would have smiled to see this further truth added to his painting after his death.



4 comments on “Bruegel’s Christmas Paintings

  1. Thank you. A fascinating story. Do you know how, or when, Rudolf’s painting reached England? So much of his art was looted during the 30 years war, it’s a wonder it survived.

    • mikulpepper says:

      It was taken from Prague by Queen Christina of Sweden, daughter of Gustav Adolphus, the Lion of the North, in 1648. Some think that she as responsible for the censorship although witnesses report it while the painting was still in Rudolf’s hands. From Sweden it progressed to England, peaceably. There are many copies, some done by Bruegel’s son, and controversy as to which is the first, autograph, version. I think the testimony favors the overpainted version in Hampton Court as Bruegel’s original, but now that is a matter of conjecture.

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