The painter Pieter Brugel ( 1525-1569) is a favorite of mine,as the color, composition and rhythm of his work quickly draw me into his paintings. I had seen images of the painting above a number of times and had enjoyed it every time by just absorbing it as a whole. But knowing just a few facts about it make it even more interesting.
It’s titled Census at Bethlehem and is from 1566. It certainly refers to the Christmas story of Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem. They are depicted in the lower central part of the image, Mary on a donkey led by Joseph. But it is apparent that this is not the proper time or place for the story for the biblical tale. It is a Dutch/Flemish scene fifteen hundred years in the future. But it turns out that this was not unusual for Bruegel. He often took myths and tales from other times and cultures and placed them in contemporary settings.
It is also suggested that this painting was a veiled criticism that compared the governance of the Netherlands, marked by heavy taxation and a rough suppression of Protestantism, under the Spanish king, Philip II, to that of the Roman Empire in the Biblical era in Judea. This was painted just a few years before a revolt against Spanish rule broke out.
Seeing this as a political protest adds a layer to its depth. But however you might look at it– as a simple peasant scene, political screed or religious allegory–for me it is a feast for the eyes.