The Symbolism of the Christmas Crib- The Seen and Unseen

Census at Bethlehen Peter Bruegel the Elder 1566 Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels

Census at Bethlehen
Peter Bruegel the Elder
1566
Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels

In the past two weeks I have given two lectures on the theology, history, and the symbolism of the Creche.  In the hectic pace of these Advent days too often we forget or fail to return to the theme of repentance and preparation.  We focus more, at times, on what we will get and give to others and less on what we have received and what is already given.  A painting which might cause us to pause is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Census at Bethlehem.

The people of this Flemish village are busy following the law given by Caesar Augustus (in Bruegel’s world, the Hapsburgs) and going about their lives, but fail to recognize who has entered their midst. Mary and Joseph do not differ in size or coloration from the other figures.  To be noted as well is that Bruegel, whenever he painted a village, included a church in his depiction.  This may be one way in which the artist sought to comment on the importance of faith.

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, skatng, 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 Bruegel the Younger, is also in the Brussels museum.

The Earliest Images

Detail from the side facing the apse of the so-called "Sarcofago di Stilicone" ("Stilicho's sarcophagus"), an Ancient Roman Christian sarcophagus dating from the 4th century.

Detail from the side facing the apse of the so-called “Sarcofago di Stilicone” (“Stilicho’s sarcophagus”), an Ancient Roman Christian sarcophagus dating from the 4th century.

The earliest representations of the Nativity itself are very simple, just showing the infant, tightly wrapped, lying near the ground in a trough or wicker basket. The ox and ass are always present, even when Mary or any other human is not. Although they are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts they were regarded as confirmed by scripture from some Old Testament verses, such as Isaiah 1,3:”The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib” and Habakkuk 3,2: “in the midst of the two beasts wilt thou be known”, and their presence was never questioned by theologians. They were regarded by Augustine, Ambrose and others as representing the Jewish people, weighed down by the Law (the ox), and the pagan peoples, carrying the sin of idolatry (the ass). Christ was arrived to free both from their burdens.

The Magi

The magi scene is among the first narrative images to appear in early  Christian art.  The scene predates other New Testament catacomb art,  as well as any representation of Jesus’ birth.  One unique exception is the image below which is an image of Ballam and the Virgin with Child.

Beginning of 3rd century  Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome  This is earliest known image of Mary.  The figure at the left appears to be the prophet Balaam pointing to a star. The star is from Numbers 24:17

Beginning of 3rd century
Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
This is earliest known image of Mary. The figure at the left appears to be the prophet Balaam pointing to a star. The star is from Numbers 24:17

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About Monsignor Mark Richard Lane

I am a Catholic Priest of the Diocese of Richmond. I am also a presenter in the Theology and Symbolism in Art from the art of the catacombs to modern art. My current research is on the duplicity of art in 19th Century America.
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