Bruegel’s treatment of the Christ

A somewhat belated Easter post here, as the rest of the day kept me quite busy.

Carrying of the Cross by Pieter Bruegel

I’m slowly making my way through a book on Pieter Bruegel. Page 95 contains this paragraph:

    At the same time, Northern painters were growing more and more worldly in their ways of handling the Bible. In the first place, the Flemish fondness for realistic detail was being emphasized more and more, to the point where Biblical incidents were often subordinated to general scenes of everyday affairs. This was particularly true of Bruegel, whose artistic bent lay not in the pious glorification of God but in the delineation of impious man. In The Carrying of the Cross, he all but buried the figure of Christ with his burden in the jostling crowd. The artist did the same thing in a painting called Adoration of the Kings in the Snow, executed late in his career, in 1564. Two earlier Bruegel Adorations had been entirely traditional, with the Virgin Mary, the Infant, the Magi, in conventional, prominent positions. The third painting is radically different. It shows a beautiful Flemish village in winter, with great soft flakes of snow spiraling down on a shuffle of dogs, donkeys and countryfolk. Only by searching can a viewer finally find the shadowy corner where the small, shrouded figure of the Virgin and the adoring kings can just be made out.

Adoration of the Kings in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel

It seems to me the use of the terms “worldly” and “pious” are a bit slanted. From an artistic point of view, it’s simply a different treatment of a traditional subject. The same book notes earlier that very little is actually known about Bruegel; such unattributed editorializing seems out of place.

This commentary on these paintings caused me to consider another possibility, other than that of Pieter falling into a certain worldliness. Such a modest treatment of the Christ speaks volumes of His humble birth, life and death as well as affirming His incarnation. Certainly these paintings are a more accurate — and in my opinion more entrancing — portrayal of Jesus’ birth and death than many more fanciful and well known works. Granted, the people and environs are Flemish and not Middle-Eastern, but Christ being born in an obscure barn in the corner of a scene is much more Biblical than the Virgin and Child seated on a throne surrounded by luscious tapestries.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

4 Responses to Bruegel’s treatment of the Christ

  1. Mo-Coffee says:

    YES YES YES! go ahead and take all the pictures out of the book and trash the commentary! I think you’ve nailed it. I am increasingly disturbed at the really biased “objective” reporting one finds in many art history texts- where context and function seem totally ignored- especially if it is religious.

    I find Bruegel’s work incredibly spiritual-and TIMELY-largely for the reason you stated above.

    I do think there is a worldly-ness to be considered, but in the context of the INCARNATION of Christ, which I think Bruegel is driving home. It’s as if Bruegel is screaming to his society. LOOK. HERE. NOW! This is who Christ is, who he came for, and why he did what he did.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. TAE says:

    Politics may also have played into Bruegel’s stepping away from the more overtly pious appearing paintings according to the Time-Life book. The Spanish king who had control over northern Europe at that point in time was viciously trying to root out any non-Catholic sentiments such as Lutheranism and Calvinism. Funny thing is, IIRC, nothing has been established up to this point in the writing about which side of that battle Bruegel was on . . .

  3. Pingback: Some bloggy love. « Conscious, and Occasionally Organized, Ramblings

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