Jan Brueghel seems to have squeezed a whole world into his tiny picture. A crowd waits patiently for a turn to come closer to the little child on his mother’s knee. The baby is bare, to show us that he’s a real human baby, but the silvery arrow of light tells us something more.
The old man kneeling is a king. He wears no crown and neither do the kings on either side of him. It’s the child that wears the true crown – a delicate halo that would outshine any earthly crown, for it announces him as the Son of God.
Brueghel’s delicate picture was painted in body colour (watercolour which is mixed with white pigment to make it opaque) on vellum and was made to be handled. It was a talking point but also a reminder of a great religious event. Its owner would have enjoyed the strange mixture of beauty and ugliness that the artist often put into his pictures, bringing everyday people into incidents of great significance.
Jan Brueghel seems to have squeezed a whole world into his tiny picture. What draws all these people together under the cold, starlit sky to stare so intently, to wait patiently for their turn to come closer to the little child on his mother’s knee, reaching towards the old man kneeling at his feet? The starlight is cold, the trees leafless but the baby is bare – to show us that he is a real, human baby. But the silvery arrow of light from the star points him out as something more. A miracle has happened in this ramshackle hut, and word has got around.
We look down from a distance on the crowd around the hut. Each figure, each group has a story to tell, even the crowds in the misty distance. Someone has lobbed a shoe on to the thatched roof, maybe to silence the cock strutting about up there with his hens. A cat peers down from the hay loft at an old man kneeling to the baby – a king. He wears no crown, but his sceptre is on the ground beside him with the gold lid of his costly gift. On either side of him are his fellow monarchs, one in pink, the other in white. Although richly dressed, neither wears a crown. It’s the child that wears the true crown, a delicate halo that would outshine any earthly crown for it announces him as the Son of God, held in Mary’s strong, safe hands – and the kings can only gaze in awe.
Joseph, dressed in his traditional yellow, peers out of the hut door as if unable to believe what’s happening. His tools lie abandoned under the tree near the shepherds. The shepherds huddle close to the side of the hut with their lurcher dogs, awkward, shy of the important visitors. One eyes the servant of the African king who holds his master’s enormous sword, while the king himself holds his gift to the Christ Child in an odd little boat-shaped casket.
These two figures also appear in the work of Jan Brueghel’s father, Pieter Brueghel the Elder – founder of a dynasty of painters. Drawings and templates would be passed from one member of the family to another, so their work could be copied or refined and circulated to eager buyers, and now to be seen in almost every major gallery in Europe.
Brueghel’s delicate picture was painted in body colour (watercolour which is mixed with white pigment to make it opaque) on vellum and was made to be handled, studied at close quarters and returned to again and again. Kept on the shelf of a room full of curiosities and not on the wall, it was a talking point, but also the reminder of a great religious event – whoever owned it revered the subject. They enjoyed the characters and humour, but not least, the strange mixture of beauty and ugliness that Jan Brueghel often put into his pictures, bringing everyday people into incidents of great significance.
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