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

The Adoration of the Kings

Oil on wood, 111 x 84 cm
National Gallery, London

Despite specialising in scenes from peasant life, for which he became known as 'Peasant Bruegel', the artist was no Flemish rustic but a highly educated man who travelled to Italy recording views of cities and landscapes. He began his career working for a publisher designing popular satirical engravings and prints after Bosch. When he began to paint around 1560 he found his patrons among the leading intellectuals and rich bankers of Antwerp. Many of his pictures reflect the farces, allegorical plays and processions presented by the literary societies to which such people belonged and which were central to the intellectual and festive life of Netherlandish cities.

It is difficult to believe that a theme like the Adoration could be conceived in a satirical spirit, yet the caricatural element may have a serious moral point. As the kings offer or wait to offer their gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child, the crowd has eyes only for the rich presents. The townsman in glasses on the right seems to look at the Moorish king Balthazar's magnificent censer with open-mouthed greed. (It is indeed a splendid example of contemporary goldsmith's art, a golden ship constructed around a precious nautilus shell surmounted by a crystal orb.) The soldier at the Virgin's shoulder stares wide-eyed at the vessel containing myrrh. And the Child smiles but shrinks back from the gold held out by the oldest king.