About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
Finish reading W.H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts here
—W.H. Auden, Musée des Beaux Arts (1938) in Collected Poems p. 179 (E. Mendelson ed. 1976)
In December 1938, on a visit to Brussels, W.H. Auden went to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, which furnished the inspiration for this poem, published in 1940. It was a tense time in Belgium and the world. Madness was afoot in Europe, and many, including Auden, sensed the imminent outbreak of a great conflagration. The culture that had existed in Europe up to that moment would perish and a new one would be born. Some elements of the past would be salvaged, of course. Some aspects of European culture have a knack for surviving conflagrations.
So what, exactly, is W.H. Auden discussing here when he speaks of “old masters”? A stanza later, he references Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” so much of the writing has made the assumption that this is the focus of his descriptions. But that’s a mistake. The bulk of the poem is clearly about a different painting, in fact it’s the museum’s prize possession: “The Census at Bethlehem.”
Early in the spring, I was in Brussels, and I stole some time from my schedule to go to the museum, specifically to see this painting. It is one of a small number of works of art that have the power to capture and transport their viewer, and somehow no matter how carefully it is reproduced, these qualities don’t come through in the copies. It requires being scrutinized up close, in that red-walled room in the center of Brussels. And it rewards those who take the time to look and ponder. Brueghel is a wonder, a man of highly idiosyncratic talents. His contemporaries across the Alps were producing figures filled with mythological allegories, men in heroic poses with impressive musculature; women with voluptuous and seductive bodies. They are clad only with so much cloth as the rules of modesty commanded, if even that. The figures seem superdimensional, as if they were deities or demigods of the classical age. Brueghel we know traveled to Italy to view these works, but what is there to show for it in his art? He is driven by a different passion, namely to show his life and society as it actually is. His glance is unforgiving. He catalogues what stands about him—the merchants, the children, men and women of common society. They lead quiet, simple, suffering lives. They are not arrayed in brilliant damask, but in coarse wool and fustian. They seek out simple pleasures, though these are brief respites in a life filled with cold, disease and deprivation. As Brueghel writes, his homeland suffers under the boot of foreign oppression. Suspicions of heresy drive brutality, beatings, murders, executions. Whole villages are razed. Brueghel chronicles this suffering, and the commitment of his people to persevere in the face of it–indeed to house one of the great outpourings of artistic creativity that European culture had known to that point. Compare Brueghel’s vision with that of a Raphael—it is hard to imagine anything more different. But which sends us today the stronger message of honesty and humanity? Which is essentially a time capsule about his age? Certainly it is Brueghel.
The “Census at Bethlehem” is packed with scenes of life, each of which could be a painting of its own. But the work has to be taken in as a panorama first, for its total impact, then deconstructed to its elements. The first thing that strikes the viewer is the extraordinary bright white in the picture. More paintings of this age simply don’t have white—at least not a white that looks like fresh fallen snow, Brueghel’s white. It provides a powerful contrast for the people, the buildings, the animals that populate the painting, and for the hazy winter sky with the mysterious red-orange setting sun on the horizon. Then colors pop out of the bleak winter scene. There is a stream of color flowing across the canvas in the clothing of the subjects–an unusual scarlet, a rich green, a warm ochre.
But is this painting really a religious work? Other artists portraying the dangerous trip by Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for the census show the nativity itself, focusing on the adoration of the Christ child or the wondrous visit of the Magi. One could almost overlook that aspect of the painting. Indeed, it is not of the Holy Land, but of a village in Flanders, filled with the life and scenes that Brueghel knew so well. Children play on a frozen stream. A butcher prepared to slaughter a hog, furnishing the meat that the census-taker will offer to those who subscribe. And in the single scene that most commands the viewer’s attention, a crowd gathers at the census-taker’s house, pressing to declare themselves, to pay their taxes, to claim their share of the feast which is offered to those who have traveled far to fulfill a social duty. That house bears an official seal near its door: the double-headed eagle in black on an golden field, the insignia of the Hapsburg Empire. In Brueghel’s day Flemish attitudes towards the Hapsburgs were frankly hostile—they were associated with relentless war-making and heavy taxation. So is Brueghel’s message political, and not religious? Or could it not be both at the same time?
But there in the center of the painting is Mary, and a short distance ahead of her, Joseph. The villagers are, all of them, busy about their affairs. None seems to stop to notice the arrival of the Holy Family; their focus is elsewhere. Auden writes “passionately waiting/For the miraculous birth,” but I think he misdescribes the painting on this point. Brueghel is driven by irony. In fact they are consumed by their quotidian lives, they anticipate nothing. A miracle is being played before them, and they don’t stop to notice it. But this is the special genius of Brueghel—he casts a sharp eye on the life of a village. He misses nothing. And in everything he sees the misery and harshness of human existence, but also the potential for something better. His images are remarkably precise, they are unforgiving, they seem quickly executed. But there is always something of the spirit of the moment and of the person captured in them. Can we really say that about the carefully staged graciousness of the Renaissance masters of Italy? Brueghel disregards the rules of form that the church would have him obey: the religious images should be central, and all attention should be dedicated to them. The divine status of the Virgin Mary should be signaled. But for Brueghel, the Holy Family is marked by its normalcy; they are a part of the village scene. The activities of the village swirl about them, not sensitive to the miracle about to unfold. This is Brueghel’s inner message–that we rush through our lives, attached to our needful things, accomplishing the roadmarkers of our careers, unconscious of the miracles of life that unfold about us. “The Census at Bethlehem” is a masterwork because of this message, quite apart from the technical skill and vision of its physical execution.
“And suffering they were never wrong.” Brueghel lives in hard times and he senses worse still on the horizon. And so, in December 1938, does Auden, in a gallery in Brussels. And as the season of Advent commences anew with a promise of hope but dreary news in the headlines, I wish my readers a bit of warmth from the mysterious flame that lights this bleak wintery landscape.
Listen to “Fortuna Desperata,” a song by the Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac, in a performance by Jordi Savall and the Capella reial de Catalunya in an AliaVox CD (9814). The lyrics are “Fortuna desperata/nasci, pati, mori/iniqua e maledeta/che de tal donna eletta/la fama ay de negata” -“Reckless fortune/you are born, suffer and die/unjust and accursed/who to so choice a lady/has fame been denied.” The work survives in a transcription by Isaac’s student Ludwig Senfl, recorded about the time that Brueghel completed “The Census at Bethlehem,” and has many links to the painting (note that in the exact center of the painting, Brueghel has placed one of the hallmark images of the late Middle Ages, the rota fortuna, or wheel of fortune, and that his core message is of the unrecognized fame of the great lady, which is also the theme inspiring Isaac’s work. The donna eletta is, of course, the Virgin Mary.)