words by Phil Grabsky

Pieter Breughel the Younger, Adoration of the Magi, 1564–1638

Pieter Breughel the Younger, Adoration of the Magi, 1564–1638

 This week’s chosen painting is... 

Adoration of the Magi by Pieter Brueghel

...Here's why

I’ll admit that some paintings are just easier to stare at than others.  You have to be in the right frame of mind to lose yourself in a Rothko or a Mondrian but with Pieter Brueghel the Younger that quite simply is never an issue.  To someone like me that loves history, nature, storytelling as well as, of course, the craft of art, then Brueghel is a gift.  Like his father Pieter Brueghel the Elder (take a look at his Hunters in the Snow which is fabulous) Peiter Brueghel the Younger was from what are known as The Low Countries.  The Elder was born in Brabant (now in the Netherlands) and the Younger was born in Brussels (now in Belgium). Together they are among the most significant – some would say the most significant – Netherlandish Renaissance artists. 

Take a close look at the Adoration of the Magi – the style is immediately recognisable (itself a sign of a great artist) although you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish between father and son.  But this is a work by the son – and one that I have been taking a look at for our film CHRISTMAS IN ART.  To me this is a wonderful painting that takes me right into a small village almost 500 years ago.  The event being illustrated may be in theory the birth of Christ and the arrival of the three kings (‘magi’) with their gifts but of course what we are really seeing is Brueghel’s own world.  If one travels today in the countryside of western Europe, it is not hard to find these small villages where if you remove a few cars and a bit of tarmac you can place yourself very easily back in the middle ages.

As humans we haven’t really changed that much – and so much of human life is in this paintings.  The birth of Christ is just one element of the painting – placed almost out of the picture on the left.  The mules and the kings are making their way through the heart of the village; townspeople are bending in greeting and respect. Maybe in awe and fear too. It is all so beautifully detailed – just look at those mules and their baggage and coverings.  But look too at how many people are not paying attention to the central story – they are much more concerned with the tasks of the day.  Some collect water, others carry food, saw wood, try to stay warm, have a chat, march or, as in so many villages still, just stand idly around watching the world go by. The narrative is that life goes on day after day – no matter the weather, no matter the armies marching to and fro, and even irrespective of the birth of the Messiah.  

Not only is it a multi-textured and narratively full and complex painting, it is beautifully rendered. It feels cold. It feels real. It feels hard and yet one senses a community at ease with itself, with a decent slice of humour lurking, and always ready for the next festival – something again the Brueghels loved to paint.  Brueghel the Younger and his workshop produced maybe 30 copies of this painting for sale.  As so many of the characters in the painting demonstrate, for an artist too, life couldn’t be separated from business.

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Thanks for reading! Catch us next week with #PaintingOfTheWeekNo18