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The Counting at Betlehem

Pieter Bruegel (1515-1569). Le Musée d’Art Ancien – Brussels. 1566.

Mystic Nativity

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). The National Gallery – London. 1500.


Robert Campin (1378/79-1444). Musée des Beaux-Arts. Dijon. 1425.

Augustus had succeeded to the great Julius Caesar who had founded the line of Roman Emperors. The wars had ended, the world was conquered. It was time to understand just how large the Roman world was for now. Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be made of the whole inhabited world. This was the first census, which took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Joseph lived in Nazareth in Galilee, but being of the lineage of David he had to be registered in David’s town, Betlehem in Judaea. So, Joseph set out for Betlehem with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

Pieter Bruegel

Pieter Bruegel painted the arrival of Joseph and Mary in Betlehem. It is near Christmas, and in winter. Betlehem is in a freezing cold and under the snow. Joseph and Mary enter the village alone. Mary sits with their belongings on a donkey. Joseph pulls the tired animal painstakingly forward. Joseph is bent at the effort. He also brought a cow for milk, and the cow trods near the donkey. Mary is enveloped in a cloak to keep out the cold. The communal house is near. There are so many people to inscribe that the official had to set his desk outdoors. There he sits with his books and his pens and ink. A crowd has gathered before the desk. People are pushing and shouting. There are mothers with small children, soldiers with halberds, merchants, Jews. All are around the official. He needs money for the registration. His hand is outstretched and receives each time a few coins. Many people have come to this village. They need food. Pigs are slaughtered and cut to pieces. The meat is fried in a pan. Wood needs to be cut. In this cold, alcohol is welcome. Barrels of wine and beer have been brought and are unloaded. It is still early in winter, so the children are enjoying the frozen pond. They are skating and they play with sledges. Elsewhere they make snowballs and throw them at each other.

For Bruegel, the mystery of the birth of the Son of God is within each of us. Betlehem lies close. Betlehem and the coming of Jesus are in our own communities. The birth of Jesus did not happen far away in a foreign, exotic and warm land. Bruegel lived in sixteenth century Brabant, now a province of Belgium, and since the birth of Christ is feasted at the day called Christmas, this day falls in winter in the region of Brabant. Joseph and Mary have arrived unobtrusively, so the couple is not remarked by the village people who have all something more important to do: to have the registration done and over with so that they can go to their daily tasks. Nothing extraordinary happens besides that in the village. Life goes on, everybody works and the children play. Thus starts the Nativity. The new message will be part of us, says Bruegel; it is an ordinary thing that is a simple part of our lives and souls. It is not foreign for us, but intricately bound to our human nature. Is there a better way to start the narrative of Christ’s life? No intellectual discourse needs to be done, priests are not needed; this is a message for all. This was how Bruegel saw the Nativity of the redeemer of sins.

At the same time, admire the painterly skill of Bruegel. The scene is set in winter, which is normal for Christmas, but quite rare for paintings of those centuries. Bruegel had few examples of landscapes in winter. Most northern Gothic pictures made by the great landscape painters are in high summer. Pictures were to please. It was not very pleasing to show the desolate winter season. Bruegel dared to change the image to underscore his own message. Admire also the movement in the picture: every individual figure is in action and all action is different. We are very far here from the static, sublime elevation of Van Eyck’s pictures. Bruegel is the painter of movement taken as a snapshot in time. This also was new. Bruegel has made a picture that is, like so many other of his paintings, apparently commonplace and ‘just everyday peasants’ activities’. Those pictures however bring us to the crux of ideas by the novelty of their expression and the novelty of their technique.

Sandro Botticelli

While Joseph and Mary were in Betlehem, the time came for Mary to have her child. She gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the living-space G38 .

In the countryside close by there were shepherds out in the fields keeping guard over their sheep during the watches of the night. An angle of the Lord stood over them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. The shepherds were terrified, but the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid. Look, I bring news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you: he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you: you will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ And all at once with the angel there was a great throng of the hosts of heaven, praising God with the words: ‘Glory to God in the higher heaven, and on earth peace for those he favours’ G38 .

For Sandro Botticelli, the intellectual Florentine who stood in the centre of a resplendent Renaissance merchant town, a very different vision of Nativity came to mind. Less a Nativity of the hearth and of simplicity as one of reflection and of heavenly glory. What was the Nativity about? Peace on earth was the main message, the message that still pervades all church ceremonies of Christmas today. What did peace mean? The angels embrace the humans. In the lower part of Botticelli’s picture three angels embrace three mortals. The angels of pure love are around the people and the animals; together they surround the manger. There is no discord. Three angels in robes of different colours are sitting on the roof of the shed, protecting the child by unison of hands. The angels rejoice also in heaven. They are dancing around, holding each other’s hands. They are singing peace on earth for all men of good will. Laurel crowns of peace are all around. This is the picture of the intellectual hope of the nativity of Christ.

Botticelli has painted the scene after the announcement of the birth of God to the shepherds. The throngs of angels of heaven are making music and they are singing the Gloria. The words of the Gloria have been taken over in the Holy Mass and they still are the most exuberant of all prayers of the Catholic liturgy. A Saviour is born, all rejoice. The painter entered into this scene. Sandro Botticelli painted a Nativity of the mind and a Nativity of the new cultural splendour of the Renaissance.

The painting is not all a message of joy however. Botticelli tried to understand the mystic in the event and he represented that mystic meaning for man. Hope for peace was his idea of Nativity. The peace he was desiring in times of war and troubles, he showed in his painting. He wrote that down too, in Greek phrases at the top of the painting. Botticelli wanted to underscore once more the message of peace of Jesus while wars were going on around Florence. His picture was his pamphlet.

The message of the Peasant-Bruegel goes deeper within us now, than the intellectual message of Botticelli. But Botticelli as well as Bruegel was a child of his time and he painted for another audience than Bruegel. Was he less strong a personality? He was only different. Botticelli was still linked by intellect and by tradition to very spiritual representations of religious themes. Bruegel, half a century later, had thrown off his tradition. He painted as he felt, maybe sitting in a small house of a Brussels suburb, among the peasants he loved. These were two very different visions of Christianity, one intellectual and universal and the other intimate. These are two ways of looking at the New Testament, two roads to take when looking at pictures of the Bible. Which attitude will you prefer?

The two different views of Bible subjects and of course also of other themes run through art of any century. Should paintings be the representation of universal ideas and concepts or can it show images of local life? The two attitudes towards art have always existed but the latter view more than the former has been considered to be of lesser value by many. Still, genius painters like Bruegel emphasised the small life. So did the Bible and many great works of art. In the Bible one finds mostly stories about common people, not about kings and princes. Jesus meets a woman at a well and talks with her; he helps beggars and lepers; he goes fishing. These simple stories take on epic dimensions when the grand concepts of morality, love, miracle working and lessons of a deity are imagined behind the stories. We will see this dichotomy throughout the scenes from the New Testament. Pieter Bruegel well understood this duality of the themes of the Bible. For in the unobtrusive arrival of Joseph and Mary lies a sentiment of loneliness, of desolate coldness but also of epic grandeur. Mary and Joseph arrive in the hearth of winter to bring a new hope. Soon it will be spring.

Robert Campin

Robert Campin’s Nativity is an elegant and graceful picture. We receive an impression of solemn splendour and also of course of a distant cold, probably due to the clear lines, the rigid poises of the figures and to the use of white hues in various places. It is a picture of purity, of supernatural devotion, of the mystic of the moment of nativity and an essay to represent a story on a higher plane than the human. Robert Campin wanted to make a picture that fitted with the spirit of refined admiration for all things of elegance that characterised the late Middle Ages at the Burgundian courts. He made a picture also that the owner could explain to chance viewer, since several scenes of the New Testament as well as of the apocryphal writings are brought together in one frame, plus a few surprises that proved to painter, commissioner and viewer that beyond the obvious lay a more sophisticated state of the mind.

We see the Virgin Mary dressed entirely in white so that her purity and innocence is clearly emphasised. Her robe still suggests the pregnancy and her cloak her marriage. The cloak falls widely on the ground in intricate patterns of folds, in which Campin could demonstrate his skill for drawing lines and also in representation of volumes and shades. The gold lining that forms the border of the cloak looks as if drawn in golden thread. Here Campin proved his patience and meticulous, realistic depiction. The golden border of course also tells that Mary was a queen, even though she wears no crown. She looks frail, but this is the winter time of Christmas and yet she is the least warmly covered of all the figures of the painting, as if she were above time and nature – which obviously she was. Mary’s hair falls profusely to her shoulders and she has the face of innocent youth, of good health, but not of the calculated grace of a courtier, of a noble lady. Her face is somewhat full, of a tender mother, and her hands are held in a gesture that seems more to express wonder and astonishment than to come together in a sign of prayer.

Mary looks at her child, which must have just come to the world. To earth he lies, very small and helpless, still curved in awkward twist of limbs, with uplifted breast gasping for the first breath of life. Already a silver-golden light shines from his body. He is the light of the world indeed and pervades the painting with a diffuse light that comes from all directions.

Next to Mary sits Joseph. The apocryphal texts tell of him that he was an elderly man when he married Mary, but seldom do we find Joseph in such a conspicuous place and so obviously old. He is almost bald; his hair is scarce and grey; his head slumps on his shoulders. Joseph needs heavy robes and cloaks to protect him from the cold. He could not make more of a contrast with Mary, as if Campin had wanted to show the spiritual life of Mary next to the meagre earthly life of Joseph. Robert Campin pointed out the image of Joseph. He dressed him in dark colours, in red and brown and dark blue to stress the contrast with the delicacy of Mary. The brown cloak is course and Joseph indeed wears several layers of cloaks. He holds a candle, for this is the night of Christmas, but the light of Jesus renders the candlelight dim and useless. Joseph’s gesture is sympathetic, but superfluous. It is the gesture of a human, somewhat a silly gesture in the grandeur of the scene, the birth of God.

Robert Campin painted to the right two personages mentioned in the apocryphal texts, the two midwives that assisted Mary, Zebel and Salome, called in by Joseph as was the custom in his land. The ‘Golden Legend’ tells that the one probably whose face we do not see, Zebel, recognised Mary’s virginity despite the birth. The other, Salome, the prouder one, refused to believe this. So her hand withered. An angel told her to touch the child and she was healed, recovered her hand completely. Both these women are splendidly dressed, as if she were women of a court. Salome wears many pearls, the ancient symbol of the earth and the sea, here used to display wealth. The blue cloak on her shoulders is simply marvellous. Here Campin may have used lapis lazuli, the precious stone that was the only pigment known in Campin’s time to give such splendid blue hue and especially a lasting blue. Zebel wears a less striking, a grey and lighter blue robe but Campin made also her robe to be admired because here he painted again the marvellous golden lace borders like we found in Mary. Zebel had a link to Mary since she recognised Mary’s virginity. The golden borders on Mar’s cloak are fine and distinguished, but thin, indicating her humility. On Zebel, Campin used golden lines lavishly.

On the right side, with Zebel and Salome, Robert Campin could situate the scene in the environment of noble ladies so that viewers of the court of wealthy Burgundy, for which undoubtedly the painting was made, could also feel familiar with the scene. The left side however, is the poor, humble side, the side of Mary. Here Campin placed the shepherd’s barn of the Nativity. The shed is old and neglected. Through the openings we see the oxen and the ass, the two animals that the Gospels do not mention, but which were introduced in the apocryphal writings to keep Jesus warm. The barn is half-destroyed, like in other paintings where the setting was in Roman ruins, symbolising the destruction of the old order of things by the coming of Jesus. Between the left and right side, in the centre, we find the three poor shepherds that have come to honour the child. Campin drew the three shepherds above Mary. He could have positioned Mary more to the left. The painter placed the humble shepherds above the Madonna surely to mark her side. Mary will side up with the poor and humble of this world and provide them with solace.

Above the scene of Nativity hovers an angel dressed in white, announcing the birth of the Redeemer. This angel also represents the star of Betlehem that shone over the birth. The wings of the angel are also white, Mary’s white, whereas the wings of the three angels to the left are painted in green, red and blue hues. Green and blue do not match well, but with a patch of red in between them, harmony of colours was saved. We now know – but Campin may not have remarked this – that these three colours together as light streams can form in the additive process of colours shades of white-grey, the colour of the central angel. Green, red and blue mixed together on the painter’s palette in paints give a very dark hue, very close to black, in the subtractive process of colour mixing. And this, Campin must have known. Thus the three coloured angels could represent also the Trinity, which together were three aspects of God and were in contrast to Jesus, the light of the world.

The allusion to the Trinity is the hidden but central theme of the picture, as Campin placed Jesus, the Son, right under the father figure of Joseph. Joseph represents God the Father and the white angel above Joseph, might represent the Spirit. The number three is not just in the three angels and in this central theme of the Trinity. It is also in the three shepherds and in the three women, and even in the three aspects of the landscape: land, sea and sky.

Behind the scene of Nativity, in the upper right corner, Robert Campin painted a fine landscape. The landscape is a fictitious one, and Campin represented the various landscapes of the world. He painted on the right a view of meadows, a view of the low lands with small houses, as he knew from Flanders and Picardy. He painted a city towards the centre, a walled medieval town and port. He painted a sea with ships and open sails. Towards the left he also showed a mountain view. A high castle thrones there. All these features of landscape and nature are rendered in an admirable way, in the smallest detail, like a miniaturist would have done. The landscape is in winter, even though a magnificent sun sends its first golden rays. Jesus was born at Christmas, so although there is no snow; the trees are leafless and the meadows barren.

The viewer can distinguish several lines of structure in the painting. The vertical Gothic lines are the most obvious. The direction of the main figures, of the barn walls and door show the vertical direction that always inspires rigidity and spirituality in their aspiration for the skies. There are also oblique lines in the structure. The sides of the roof of the barn indicate the oblique directions, and these directions indicate also natural movements in the picture, as the spectator follows the colours. The white colour of Salome’s headdress for instance leads upwards to the white colour of the angel, in the direction proposed by the roof. These white colour areas form a kind a triangle or pyramid structure with the white angel at the top and with Mary and Zebel-Salome at the sides. Within this pyramid we find most conspicuously Joseph, and then very much below also Jesus. Campin thus draws the attention of the viewer to Joseph. This can not have been an accident, a chance facet of Campin’s structure. The artist really wanted to honour the man whose child was Jesus. Campin might have expressed that Joseph was really Jesus’s father and we know already that Campin gave with Joseph an allusion to God the Father. So Campin showed also in the structure of the painting the trinity theme of the picture, which needed the father image above Jesus. Joseph’s candle then again refers to the theme of the light of the world.

In the structure we can furthermore distinguish several symmetries. There are symmetries of vertical lines around the axis Jesus-Joseph-angel. There are symmetries of colours in the painting. The blue colour of Salome’s cloak continues in Joseph’s cape, in the cape of the shepherd and into the blue angel of the left. The colour red indicates the same oblique direction: from Salome’s robe deep below, over Joseph’s robe, to a shepherd’s cape and then towards the red angel. This is also one of the directions of the roof’s sides, the right border of the roof. This direction leads to the sun, again to the light of the world, which thus might be the second theme of the painting. And with the Nativity we have three themes. Three themes are also in the narrative of the scenes: the work of the midwives before birth, the Nativity itself, and the coming of the shepherds. Finally, when we look at the areas in white colour we cannot but remark that they are essentially three (Salome and Zebel’s white of headdresses form one area) and these seem to surround in a circle the figure and head of Joseph.

In the very centre of the panel we find the hat of a shepherd. This shepherd has also a red cape, so a hat is superfluous and the other shepherds do not wear hats. Yet the hat is in the very centre of the picture and it covers the hearth of the shepherd. Did this happen by chance or did Campin also wanted to say that his heart was with the poor shepherd? The shepherd is dressed with his cape in the same colour as Joseph –red. So again we find links with Joseph. Robert Campin may have told with this detail that Jesus’s divine message would be addressed to the humble of the world first and that god the Father felt most for the poor. We see no kings or sages coming to honour Jesus in this painting. We admire Campin’s painting and value it highly not just because of its antiquity. Campin’s Nativity is a masterpiece by its intrinsic value, as a marvellous painting by which one can easily be impressed, in which much is to be discovered, and for which we would like to know more about the painter’s life and art.

Robert Campin was an aging man of around forty-seven years old when he made the Nativity. We know very little of his life. He may have been born in Valenciennes, a town now in the north of France, and he had a workshop in rich Tournai, somewhat northerly of Valenciennes and close to Bruges of Flanders. He had famous students in Tournai, who became great masters in their own right: Rogier de le Pasture later called Rogier van der Weyden, and Jacques Daret. Campin certainly had the skills for a painting worthy of the Dukes of Burgundy who also ruled over Flanders and who could not but covet the city and lands of Tournai.

We may wonder where a masterpiece of sophistication and elegance like the Nativity came from, so suddenly in the history of art. Paintings like the Nativity emerged suddenly, as if without any tradition, in the last years of the fourteenth century and the first years of the fifteenth. The tradition of paintings churches with frescoes of wall paintings had ended since the twelfth century with the success of the austere Order of Citeaux. The Cistercian monks preferred mystic atmosphere in clean, whitewashed churches. The walls of white French stone of the Cistercian abbeys were devoid of decoration and thus offered spirituality without distraction. In the scriptoriums of the Cistercian abbeys however, monks and artists could lavishly decorate manuscripts since these were dedicated to the private devotion of the abbots and of the wealthy courtiers or textile traders of France and Burgundy. From this miniaturist tradition emerged masters like Robert Campin. These new artists simply applied to larger panels the images of the manuscripts, in their style, when the strictness of Citeaux gradually eased under the influence of the wealth of the courts of the Dukes.

The masters of the late Middle Ages in Flanders had not yet discovered, remarked the wonderful effects of light, nor accorded their skills to this feature. There was no real revolution, no lost art re-discovered, but simply an ancient tradition that came from the ancient naïve Carolingian frescoes that were still much inspired by Byzantine models and that had sophisticated considerably in the miniaturists’ hands. Thus naïve expression of narrative had evolved into delicate refinement of detail, over two centuries of small paintings on folios of paper or parchment.

Robert Campin was one of the very first painters and masters to work on larger panels in Western Europe. He was really a great master, not just in skills, but also in competence and intelligence. He knew the power of structure, of directions in a painting, and of symbolism of colours. He is a phenomenon of intelligence. He is a long evolution away from the naïve Romanesque painters of the eleventh century. With Robert Campin we feel reflections on art on the move. This painter thought deep, devotedly on his art and brought a sophistication of representation that could hardly be bettered later. There might only be four things to learn in the art of painting beyond Campin: the power of contrasts of light and shadows, the power of movement, the art of expression by colours only, and the art of observation of nature. But Campin came close. He did paint shadows in the folds of the figures, but that was a technique to create volumes that was quite known to Roman, Byzantine and hence the Romanesque painters. Campin did not really use the natural effects of light falling from a certain side in his painting. Observation of nature was also not so important fro him in his landscapes. Campin’s landscapes remain the result purely of his imagination and they are subdued to the theme. Campin did not paint landscapes like after him Joachim Patenier or Henri Blès, or Pieter Bruegel. Campin still positioned his figures in positions of rest and we see so obviously the long vertical lines of Gothic still in his picture. Yet, he used slanting directions in his structure and must have started to discover their function in a painting. Finally, he was of course all dedicated still to the fine lines of the miniatures of the old manuscripts. He, like all other painters of this time, limited unbridled expression by colour only. But then, he painted for spirituality and refined courts, and not for wild passions or for the expression of his own feelings.

It is unknown for whom the Nativity of Robert Campin was made, but the panel must have been since the fifteenth century in Burgundy. It shows beyond doubt that Campin was one of the master trendsetters at the turn of the fourteenth to the fifteenth century in Western Europe.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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