BRUEGEL, Pieter the Elder
(b. ca. 1525, Brogel, d. 1569, Brussel)

The Census at Bethlehem

Oil on oak, 116 x 164 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Seen from above, the snow-covered village stretches on the one side to a ruined castle and on the other, beyond the pond, as far as the church. People are going about their daily tasks: sweeping the snow, building a cabin, crossing the pond on foot next to a ferry-boat caught in the ice, gathering around a fire. The children are playing, throwing snowballs, skating, spinning their tops, sledging. In the right hand foreground, a man with a large carpenter's saw is leading an ox and an ass, the latter bearing a women wrapped tightly in an ample blue mantle. Without attracting attention, they pick their way between the carts of beer barrels and bales. These are Joseph and Mary, who have come to Bethlehem to be enrolled in the universal census ordered by Emperor Augustus. The Gospel episode is associated with the payment of tax. And indeed to the left, the crowd is pressing in front of the tax-gatherer's office, installed at the window of the inn, whilst in front of the door, a pig is being killed.

The picture suggests a muffled atmosphere, made more limpid by the reddening disk of the setting sun. With tiny highlights and reworkings and subtle nuances of colour, Bruegel works on the whites to evoke the snow in all its diversity: powdery and virgin, footprinted, grey and frozen from where the children have been sliding on it, slushy where trampled. The scene is punctuated with thin trees whose empty branches stand out like signposts against a clear sky, thinly painted to allow the background layer to show through.

In a masterful synthesis of religious painting, genre scene and landscape, Bruegel recomposes everyday life, revisiting the biblical story to create a picture of a rarely equalled richness, which can be read in several ways. With a few deft brushstrokes he brilliantly captures human silhouettes in the full spontaneity of their activities. Drawing his inspiration probably from the snow-covered landscapes found in Books of Hours, Bruegel is one of the first artists to paint snow scenes, a theme he returned to another four times. In his wake, the subject proved an immense success, with winter landscapes becoming a genre of their own. 14 copies of this panel are known, one of which, from the hand of Brueghel the Younger, is also in the Brussels museum.