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The unborn Jesus arrives incognito

21 December 2012

George Pattison examines the details of The Census at Bethlehem, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

THE Census at Bethlehem, a painting in the Royal Museums of the Fine Arts of Belgium, in Brussels, may well be the most "secular" of all Bruegel's religious paintings. In fact, it is hard to see anything obviously religious about it at all.

Although the title identifies it as a familiar moment in the nativity story, we might be forgiven for thinking that it was merely a genre painting, illustrating winter life in a 16th-century Netherlandish town.

And, at one level, this is what it is. Bruegel is doing what he does so well - bringing to life the sights, sounds, and even smells of his age: the slaughter of a pig outside the inn where the taxes are being collected; children skating and tobogganing on the ice; a group of soldiers huddled round a fire; workmen erecting a wood-framed shelter; pack-bearers struggling across a frozen river; and much, much more.

And, while any competent painter could use a covering of snow to suggest winter, Bruegel's bare trees, outlined against a stippled brown sky, his weary flocks of crows, and the dark red of the setting sun make us feel the cold seeping into our bones. This is indeed a bleak midwinter.

We could stop here, and it would be enough. Bruegel would have given us a picture we can pore over, relish, and return to again and again, always discovering new details to delight and fascinate. Note how the outer fortifications of the town are shown as broken and crumbling away, as if to suggest that - for all its perpetual motion - this is a world that is passing away, eking out its cold existence in the shadow of past glories. But there is more.

If we look again, slightly to the right of centre, we notice the unassuming figure of a young woman seated on a donkey, apparently just arriving in town: Mary. And, once we see her, the balance of the whole picture changes. But what is it about her that holds our gaze, and makes her the true focus of this busy scene, the still centre of this teeming world?

Perhaps it is just that - her stillness. This is a picture full of movement. Everyone is up and doing, or watching what others are doing - bustling, shoving, peering, staring; in short, a heaving mass of humanity.

But Mary is not involved in, or attentive to, any of this. Her head is slightly bowed, and her face - again uniquely - is turned towards us, the viewers. But she is not exactly looking at us, either. Rather, she seems absorbed in herself, pondering the words she treasures in her heart, and brooding on the mystery she carries in her womb: the Word becoming flesh.

Nor are any of the crowd giving her a second glance. She passes unnoticed through their midst. If only they knew that it was through her - this quiet, unassuming young woman - that a new and eternal light would shine into this bleak midwinter world, then, surely, they would look.

Karl Barth spoke of the "secularity of the Word", and Søren Kierkegaard of the divine "incognito" - and what picture could better reveal this, the true humility of the incarnation, arriving without a fanfare, unobserved, unrecognised, but full of grace for all the world.

The Revd Dr George Pattison is Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford, and Canon Residentiary of Christ Church, Oxford


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