Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 'The Adoration of the Kings', 1564
This striking depiction of the Adoration of the Kings provides a rather unsettling rendition of a familiar Christmas scene.
In a departure from his usual style of panoramic landscapes peopled with peasants and children, Bruegel’s claustrophobic Nativity scene is tightly focused on the Three Kings offering their gifts to the Christ Child who sits perched on the Virgin Mary’s knee. Behind we can just make out the tumbledown stable in which he was born.
The kings appear ridiculous, with caricatured faces, lank hair, and absurdly elaborate and ill-fitting costumes; Jesus appears to shrink away from the gift being offered to him; and the crowd of bystanders jostling for position in the background is not a courtly retinue but comprises brute-faced peasants and lance-wielding foot soldiers.
The soldier behind Mary is staring wide-eyed, not at the newborn Son of God, but at the older king's precious gold-encased gift; while the peasant in the green headdress distracts Joseph, whispering an aside into the portly and aged carpenter’s ear.
There seems to be a satirical and moral intention behind the painting's peculiarities. Christ and the Virgin are surrounded by people who do not recognise him. These bystanders are just as short-sighted as the man squinting through his glasses on the right of the painting.
The company of soldiers brings to mind the soldiers who will arrest the adult Christ and crucify him; while the lance rising directly above Mary assumes the shape of a cross, foretelling the Crucifixion. The gift from which the Child recoils may well be myrrh – used to embalm the dead – and a symbol of Christ's sacrifice.