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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 'The Adoration of the Kings', 1564

Key facts
Full title The Adoration of the Kings
Artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Artist dates active 1550/1; died 1569
Date made 1564
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 112.1 × 83.9 cm
Inscription summary Signed; Dated
Acquisition credit Bought with contributions from the Art Fund and Arthur Serena through the Art Fund, 1920
Inventory number NG3556
Location Room 27
Collection Main Collection
The Adoration of the Kings
Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Virgin sits in front of a dilapidated stable with the naked Christ Child on her knee. Three men offer golden gifts – this is the Adoration of the Kings, a biblical episode imagined as a contemporary event. It’s a chilly winter day: Mary’s dress has fur-lined sleeves and Joseph has a thick-belted robe.

This is one of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s few religious paintings; the upright format and rich colouration suggest it might have been designed as an altarpiece. But its uneasy atmosphere is at odds with a devotional work. The kings are richly dressed but dishevelled, the soldiers menacing, the spectators bewildered or enraged. The crowding, the elongated proportions of the main figures and their nearness to the viewer add to the claustrophobic atmosphere.

What – if anything – this means must remain speculation: we know nothing of Bruegel’s own beliefs and aren't sure who commissioned the painting. His technique, however, is masterly: although seemingly working at great speed every detail is a triumph of design

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