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Census at Bethlehem

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Census at Bethlehem

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
  • Original Title: Volkstelling te Bethlehem
  • Date: 1566
  • Style: Northern Renaissance
  • Period: Brussels Period (1563-1569)
  • Genre: genre painting
  • Media: oil, panel
  • Tag: rivers-and-waterfalls, cottages-and-farmhouses
  • Dimensions: 115.5 x 163.5 cm
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As often before, Bruegel treats a biblical story as a contemporary event. And once again, reference to particular political events has been adduced - in this case, the severity of the Spanish administration in the southern Netherlands. However, Bruegel may well be making a more general criticism of bureaucratic methods.This is a rare subject in previous Netherlandish art.

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The Census at Bethlehem (also known as The Numbering at Bethlehem) is an oil-on-panel by the Netherlandish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1566. It is signed and measures about 115,5 cm × 164,5 cm. It is currently held and exhibited at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, which acquired it in 1902. It is one of the first paintings in western art to feature a significant snow landscape and was painted in the aftermath of the winter of 1565, which was one of the harshest winters on record.

The painting shows a Flemish village in winter at sundown. A group of people is gathered at a building on the left. A sign bearing the Habsburg double-headed eagle is visible on the building. Other people are making their way to the same building, including the figures of Joseph and the pregnant Virgin Mary on a donkey. A pig is being slaughtered. People are going about their daily business in the cold, children are shown playing with toys on the ice and having snowball fights. At the very centre of the painting is a spoked wheel, sometimes interpreted as being a reference to the wheel of fortune. To the right, a man in a small hut is shown holding a clapper, a warning to keep away from leprosy. Leprosy was endemic in that part of Europe when the painting was created. There is a begging bowl in front of the hut. As he often did, Bruegel treats a biblical story as a contemporary event. And once again, reference to particular political events has been adduced - in this case, the severity of the Spanish administration in the southern Netherlands. However, Bruegel may well be making a more general criticism of bureaucratic methods.

The events depicted are described in Luke 2, 1-5:

This is a rare subject in previous Netherlandish art. The ruined castle in the background is based on the towers and gates of Amsterdam.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger and his studio made dozens of copies of the painting after his father's death, one of which was sold at auction for $10 million in 2013. Another copy, dated from 1610, is also at Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.

This is a part of the Wikipedia article used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). The full text of the article is here →


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