Census at Bethlehem is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-69) that says much more about the Netherlands in the 16th century than the scene it purports to depict.
The two Pieter Bruegels
There were two famous painters, father and son, with the name Pieter Bruegel, although the younger used the original family spelling of Brueghel which his father had abandoned. The elder Bruegel was the patriarch of a whole dynasty of well-known painters across four generations.
Pieter the Elder was born in the Netherlands (the exact year of his birth is unknown) and he worked as a painter in Antwerp and Brussels. He is often referred to as the “Peasant Bruegel” in recognition of his favoured subject for painting, namely the peasant life of his homeland.
Pieter the Younger (1565-1636) hardly knew his father, who died when the younger Pieter was a young child, but he became devoted to his father’s memory and copied many of Pieter the Elder’s works, as did other members of his workshop. He also painted many works that were original compositions.
Census at Bethlehem
Because of the copying mentioned above, several versions of this painting are known to exist, so the painting can be attributed to either Pieter, depending on whether one is considering the original or a close copy made only a few decades later. The original dates from 1566.
The scene looks to be nothing more than that of a Flemish village in the snow. A crowd has gathered at a tavern in the left foreground, but life seems to be going on as normal elsewhere, with well-wrapped-up peasants going about their business gathering fuel or walking or skating on the ice.
However, in the centre of the foreground is a woman in a blue cloak riding a donkey that is being led by her husband. This is Mary and Joseph making their way to join the throng of people queuing to pay their taxes.
This is therefore an example of something that was quite common in 16th century Flemish art, namely the introduction of Biblical themes to a contemporary scene. By so doing, the artist hoped to make the Bible message relevant to the painting’s viewers and to make a moral point as well as a spiritual one.
A dig at the Hapsburgs
However, Bruegel has gone one step further in this particular painting. At the time, the Netherlands (which comprised the whole of present-day Belgium and Holland) was governed by the Hapsburg King Philip II of Spain. The Catholic monarch was far from popular in the Protestant-inclined Low Countries, and it would not be many years before the whole region would rise in revolt at Philip’s attempts to convert the people back to Catholicism.
The clue to Bruegel’s political message is on the wall of the tavern that has become the census/tax office. The poster displays a double-headed eagle; this was not only the symbol of ancient Rome but also that of the Hapsburg dynasty. The oppression of ancient Palestine by the Roman Empire is therefore translated into that of the Low Countries by Hapsburg Spain.
Bruegel’s paintings were not intended for public display but would have been bought by members of Antwerp’s intelligentsia. His witty dig at the Hapsburgs would have been appreciated by whoever bought Census at Bethlehem and proudly showed it to his friends and neighbours.