Advent offering – 21 December

For the last few days of the advent calendar, I thought I would look at some images depicting the nativity story, as told in the Christian gospels of Luke and Matthew. To start us off, I’ve chosen this beautiful painting usually attributed to Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Brueghel the younger (brother of Jan Brueghel the elder, whom we’ve met in a past post). The painting is titled The Census at Bethlehem, depicting the events of Luke 2, which describe the journey of Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem in order to be registered as part of the Roman imperial census:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered… So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. (Lk 2.1-5)

The painting shows a snowy Bethlehem, buzzing with those who, like Mary and Joseph, have come for the census. The detail in the picture is wonderful to look at (I recommend you enlarge the picture on your computer screen – I promise you’ll be captivated by all the action taking place in it). Children play on the frozen river, people crowd round bonfires and braziers trying to keep the winter chill out, and a rather boisterous snowball fight appears to be taking place in the background (see if you can spot the woman rubbing snow into the face of a man lying on the ground). To the left in the foreground, a crowd forms around a building that is usually taken to be the place of registration for the census –  people queue up at a table, behind which others sit taking down details and receiving payment (taxes perhaps?) Meanwhile, to the right of this building, near the centre of the painting, we spot Mary and Joseph, making their way across the snow. Joseph is pointing ahead to their destination, while Mary sits, riding on a donkey, keeping warm in a teal green cloak. With all the action, hubbub, and clamour that seems to fill this scene, the couple easily get lost – for the moment, they are just two ordinary folk amidst many others – tired, cold, and hungry after their long journey. Yet very soon, according to gospel traditions, they will become extraordinary, given the events that unfold in this nativity narrative. But more about that tomorrow…

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Census at Bethlehem (c.1605-10)

One thought on “Advent offering – 21 December

  1. cedar51 December 21, 2013 / 4:57 pm

    Caroline, the scene portrayed is indeed excellent, all kinds of happenings from carpenters building a ?house, people keeping warm by roaring fires, domesticity through to traders, people carrying things, children playing, even what looks like someone planting a garden (in the snow) through to groups gathered at doorways – to the bottom left those “signing in” – even a couple of pigs. Other tools of trade scattered around – Mary certainly looks a little out of place because she is actually astride a donkey but she is there…and then there is the colours of life.


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