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
The Virgin Mary sits in front of a dilapidated stable with the naked Christ Child on her knee. Around her, three men offer golden gifts – this is the Adoration of the Kings, imagined as a contemporary event. The Feast of the Adoration is celebrated on 6 January, and this is a chilly winter day: Mary’s dress has fur-lined sleeves; Joseph has a thick-belted robe and holds a hat; and the kings‘ retinue and bystanders are well wrapped up. Although cold, the sun seems to have been shining: the sky was originally blue, and the soldiers’ armour reflects bright light.
This painting’s upright format and rich colouration – some colours have faded, especially the reds, pinks and purples, while the blues would have been brighter and more varied – suggest it might have been designed as an altarpiece. But the sombre atmosphere seems at odds with a devotional work, and many of the figures are almost parodied. Caspar and Melchior, on the left, are richly dressed but strangely dishevelled, with unkempt greasy hair and haggard faces; Balthasar, on the right, has a makeshift crown. The spectators seem either enraged, bewildered or asinine – the hat and profile of the man beside Joseph make an echo of the donkey behind. The threatening band of soldiers bring to mind those who would crucify Christ, while his white cloth resembles a shroud. He seems to cringe away from the kneeling Caspar.
Bruegel seems to have worked at great speed. The ground is irregular in places, perhaps because it was laid on too quickly. The priming was applied so fast that the texture of the brushstrokes is visible through the paint, as is the underdrawing, which was done very quickly following a design worked out in advance. Look closely and you can see where Bruegel made small changes to the position of Balthasar’s boot and to the hand originally on the lid of Melchior’s cup. The paint itself was mostly put on very thinly, but was sometimes impasted or stippled with stiff brushes. Bruegel used brushes to both remove and apply paint, sometimes in a single stroke, and even worked the paint with his fingers. He painted his signature so rapidly that he misspelled his name and had to correct it.
Other paintings allow us to understand how Bruegel composed this extraordinary image and where his ideas came from. His main inspiration was Bosch’s Adoration of the Kings (Prado, Madrid), and he also knew The Adoration of the Kings by Gossaert – look at Caspar’s hat and sceptre and Balthasar’s spurred boot in both. The kings, stable and Virgin and Child had already appeared in Adoration of the Kings in a Snowstorm (Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur), which also has a contemporary setting and is thronged with soldiers. Our painting acted as a source for Bruegel’s sons: the dilapidated stable and some of the main figures reappear in The Adoration of the Kings by Jan Brueghel the Elder.
The feeling of tension and threat sets this painting apart from the others. The crowding, the elongated proportions and small heads of the main figures and their nearness to the viewer all 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, although it was possibly Nicholas Jongelink, a collector who had several works by Bruegel of around the same date. His technique, however, is masterly: every detail is a triumph of design.
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