…The only concept of the nature of things that seems never to have occurred to Bruegel is our objective scientific one by which the cosmos becomes something physically explicable, and hence godless. As for Bruegel’s god, his religious affiliation can only be surmised, and the usual conclusion is that he was a deviant Catholic. But when he painted religious subjects, he painted them in his own terms, neither manufacturing them according to the formula that enabled even the most unreligious painters to turn out satisfactory holy pictures nor giving them any Christian-mystical turn of his own.
The numbering at Bethlehem is at first glance a genre scene, where the protagonists, Joseph and Mary, are all but lost in the crowd as the enter a snowy Netherlandish village where the census takers are busily at work in the midst of the villager’s daily life.
But the Numbering at Bethlehem also shows Mary joyously shielding with her cloak the glorious secret that she carries in her womb. Thus she becomes a symbol of the presence of miracle ignored in the petty bustle of everyday affairs. This is a sub-theme in Bruegel’s consummate expressions of his beliefs, the landscapes with figures that have no specifically religious subject. Just as the villagers are blind to the presence of a miracle in Numbering, so are the men who plod across the landscape of Hunters in the Snow oblivious to anything but the business at hand. It is either they are too busy to recognize their integration with the cosmic rhythm, or they deeply suspect they are front and center plugged into it, despite the emptiness of returning empty-handed. Always an interplay between joy and sadness, a tinge of melancholy, and to navigate a middle way; in both paintings the idea of coming or going is ambiguous.
The “religion” of the cosmos was surely not something that Bruegel thought of as religion, as it would appear that he was a pantheist: on the evidence of his paintings, his god was not a force that could be isolated as a central personality and was only vaguely the Biblical god of creation; Bruegel was more caught up in the all-pervading force, the life force that is manifested equally in every detail of a universe that is self-existing but still subtle hints are present that posits some form of messianism whether violent or velvet….( to be continued)…