No Comment, Quotation — November 30, 2008, 12:02 am

Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts

brueghel-census

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.)

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2019

Where Our New World Begins

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Truce

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Lost at Sea

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Unexpected

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Where Our New World Begins·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The river “flows up the map,” they used to say, first south, then west, and then north, and through some of the most verdant and beautiful country in America. It is called the Tennessee, but it drains some forty thousand square miles of land in seven states, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Alabama, and from Mississippi to the Ohio River, an area nearly the size of En­gland.

Before the 1930s, it ran wild, threatening each spring to flood and wash away the humble farms and homes along its banks. Most of it was not navigable for any distance, thanks to “an obstructive fist thrust up by God or Devil”—as the writer George Fort Milton characterized it—that created a long, untamed run of rapids known as Muscle Shoals. The fist dropped the river 140 feet over the course of 30 miles, and therein lay the untapped potential of the Tennessee, the chance to make power—a lot of it—out of water.

Article
Slash Fictions·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1. As closing time at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery approached on May 25, 2018, Igor Podporin, a balding thirty-seven-year-old with sunken eyes, circled the Russian history room. The elderly museum attendees shooed him toward the exit, but Podporin paused by a staircase, turned, and rushed back toward the Russian painter Ilya Repin’s 1885 work Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581. He picked up a large metal pole—part of a barrier meant to keep viewers at a distance—and smashed the painting’s protective glass, landing three more strikes across Ivan’s son’s torso before guards managed to subdue him. Initially, police presented Podporin’s attack as an alcohol-fueled outburst and released a video confession in which he admitted to having knocked back two shots of vodka in the museum cafeteria beforehand. But when Podporin entered court four days later, dressed in the same black Columbia fleece, turquoise T-shirt, and navy-blue cargo pants he had been arrested in, he offered a different explanation for the attack. The painting, Podporin declared, was a “lie.” With that accusation, he thrust himself into a centuries-old debate about the legacy of Russia’s first tsar, a debate that has reignited during Vladimir Putin’s reign. The dispute boils down to one deceptively simple question: Was Ivan really so terrible?

Article
The Truce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I met Raúl Mijango, in a courtroom in San Salvador, he was in shackles, awaiting trial. He was paunchier than in the photos I’d seen of him, bloated from diabetes, and his previously salt-and-pepper goatee had turned fully white. The masked guard who was escorting him stood nearby, and national news cameras filmed us from afar. Despite facing the possibility of a long prison sentence, Mijango seemed relaxed, smiling easily as we spoke. “Bolívar, Fidel, Gandhi, and Mandela have also passed through this school,” he told me, “and I hope that some of what they learned during their years in prison we should learn as well.”

Post
Civic Virtues·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Green-Wood Cemetery, where objectionable statues are laid to rest

Article
Lost at Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A few miles north of San Francisco, off the coast of Sausalito, is Richardson Bay, a saltwater estuary where roughly one hundred people live out of sight from the world. Known as anchor-outs, they make their homes a quarter mile from the shore, on abandoned and unseaworthy vessels, doing their best, with little or no money, to survive. Life is not easy. There is always a storm on the way, one that might capsize their boats and consign their belongings to the bottom of the bay. But when the water is calm and the harbormaster is away, the anchor-­outs call their world Shangri-lito. They row from one boat to the next, repairing their homes with salvaged scrap wood and trading the herbs and vegetables they’ve grown in ten-gallon buckets on their decks. If a breeze is blowing, the air fills with the clamoring of jib hanks. Otherwise, save for a passing motorboat or a moment of distant chatter, there is only the sound of the birds: the sparrows that hop along the wreckage of catamarans, the egrets that hunt herring in the eelgrass, and the terns that circle in the sky above.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The Cairo, New York, police department advised drivers to “overcome the fear” after a woman crashed her car when she saw a spider.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today