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Advent Calendar 2004

December 17

The Census in Bethlehem, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Article by Joseph Phelan
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Bruegel: The Census in Bethlehem (detail) "And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David/In order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was with child." (Luke 2:4-5)

So Christ will be born in Bethlehem because of the census that the Emperor Augustus set in motion throughout the Roman-controlled world.

Bruegel's painting of The Census in Bethlehem is filled with men, women, children and animals, going about the common business of living. There must be 200 figures in this village scene. (Although entitled Census in Bethlehem, Bruegel sets it in a busy Flemish village in winter, bringing home the story for himself and his audience.)

Bruegel's art unifies this random bustle. But how? No obvious focal points direct us as we look at the painting. Bruegel wants us to enter into the village and orient ourselves as visitors would have done.

When we get our bearings we notice that a crowd of people is collecting in front of the building in the foreground left. Just inside some men sit at a table examining documents and making notes in a ledger. The villagers crowd around waiting to be examined.

Reading from left to right we can't help noticing two large wooden O's made by the wheels of some hay wagons (The circle has been universally accepted as the symbol of eternity and everlasting existence. As the monogram for God it stands for both the perfection and the eternity of God.)

Then we notice a young woman on a horse led by a man on foot (see above left). The woman is almost hidden by her heavy winter clothing. But we realize this is Mary. Suddenly we are aware of how mundane events can be transformed into miracle.

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This article is copyright 2002-04 by Joseph Phelan. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.


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