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Christmas Next Day?!

The Bruegel Box makes the viewer get closer to five immersive videos, each dedicated to one painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder, the iconic Flemish-Dutch artist (1525-1569) ; the paintings projected are “Proverbs”, “The Sermon of St. John the Baptist”, “the Fall of the Rebel Angels”, “Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap and Skaters” and the “Census at Bethlehem”; the videos are projected on three walls from floor to ceiling of a large room. It is the highlight of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium at Brussels, which houses the second largest collection of the important works of the most significant Renaissance artist of 16th century, after the Museum of Art History, Vienna. The day my friends and I visited the museum we were fortunate to view the video of the painting “Census at Bethlehem” (also known as the Numbering at Bethlehem) one of the most famous works of Bruegel .

The painting depicts the census process at Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus had decreed all the people should be registered. People from the surrounding villages of Bethlehem had to assemble there to get registered. Joseph also went from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, known as Bethlehem, with his pregnant wife Mary. He belonged to the house and lineage of David. The place was crowded with people and there was hardly any place for staying overnight and thus he ended up at a cowshed. It was winter and the entire place was covered with snow. Everyone on the scene is shown doing some work or other; not a single figure is still. Did any of them realize that the future ‘Holy Family’ was among them or that their “Saviour” was going to be born just a few hours later? The scene is a prologue to the nativity of Christ. People, of course, were unaware that the following day henceforth would be Christmas.

The scene shows Joseph carrying carpentry tools and leading a donkey on which is seated pregnant Mary wrapped with a big blue coat and holding bundles of food. As the video moves from the left wall towards the right we get a feeling of moving along and also witness the progress of Mary and Joseph. Since the human figures appear life size on the walls the viewer gets a sense of being among the crowd.

The original painting is in the galleries. The painting is set at a Flemish village in the evening when the sun is about to set. It is considered to be one of the earliest paintings in western art to feature a winter landscape and was painted soon after the winter in 1565, believed to be one of the harshest winters in record.

The artist seems to be looking at the scene from a higher place observing what is going on at the ground level. In the foreground groups of people are moving here and there. A man is peering out of the upper window at the people gathered at the window on the ground level paying their taxes. Groups of people make various interesting focal points spread over a sprawling landscape. Against the setting sun we can see people gathering bundles of sticks for lighting fire, children playing snow balls and skating. These are the kind of scenes one could see anywhere in the villages those days. Such elements in many of his paintings made Bruegel become a pioneer of works which came to be known later as ‘genre painting’, covering lives of normal people engaged in their day to day activities in a narrative composition rendered with empathy.

Amongst the crowd we see Joseph and Mary moving towards the window for paying their tax. Instead of choosing ‘Nativity’ or ‘Adoration of the Magi’ which were in vogue at that time, the very choice of the theme is unusual and is even considered by some as revolutionary. This painting is also cited as a criticism of the oppressive rule of the Hapsburg Emperor Philip II of Spain. But amidst despair people also look for a ray of hope; the wheel seen in the centre is believed to indicate the wheel of fortune.

Bruegel’s landscape is more of a harsh winter of Netherlands and not that of the Holy Land. His interest in visiting ruins of the past is reflected in the old fallen buildings in the background; there are also some new ones in the middle of the scene. Some scholars feel that this is an indirect suggestion of the falling of paganism and the rise of religion. In all his paintings even when landscape seems to be the dominant element, there is also some narrative element; on the other hand in the basically narrative compositions landscape adds some significance to the content. Bruegel had his own style of rendering human forms which was distinctly different from the existing styles in general.

He was known as ‘Peasant Bruegel’ to distinguish him from some of his descendants with the same name. He signed and dated all his works enabling the progress of his oeuvres. He was born in Breda in 1525 and passed away in his early forties. He had spent part of his life in Antwerp and later in Brussels. Earlier he was engaged more in print making and but in the last years he indulged in oil painting. His interest in landscapes was triggered by his travel in Italy. He had painted Biblical and mythological stories also. ‘Children’s Games’, ‘Peasant Wedding’, ‘Hunters in the Snow’ and ‘Tower of Babel’ are some of his famous works.

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