National treasures – Bruegel: The Adoration of the Kings

Originally sited at 100 Pall Mall – a private townhouse – the National Gallery opened in its current Trafalgar Square premises in 1838. Being situated in the ‘very gangway of London’ is a key element of the National’s raison d’être. As Mr Justice Coleridge wrote in 1857, the Gallery should meet the needs of “that large class of persons very moderately acquainted with art, very desirous of knowing more, very much occupied in business, who have occasionally a half-hour or hour of leisure, but seldom a whole day.”
It remains an immensely handy gallery for the visitor with a spare hour or two on his hands. The free entry and accessible layout mean that you can pop in, have a quick gawp at a masterpiece, and pop out again. In an occasional series, The Dabbler will be looking at some favourite ‘National treasures’ – paintings which we think are well worth popping in for if you happen to be in the Capital – starting here with Bruegel’s The Adoration of the Kings

Pieter van Bruegel the Elder is best known for his large, peasant-filled landscapes, so this scene of the Magi offering their gifts to the infant Christ is a rare ‘close-up’.

For something painted in 1564, its irreverence is gobsmacking – or at least, it seems so to modern eyes, conditioned as we are to thinking that humour and Christian worship are incompatible, and to the Whiggish belief (lambasted here by Recusant) that pre-Enlightenment humans were puny-minded simpletons of a different species to clever old us. In truth, irreverence has mixed quite happily with piety for much of Christianity’s history. The medieval church accommodated all human life, gargoyles gurned from the masonry and beneath Brothers’ bottoms carved misericords depict all manner of bawdy scenes, from drunkenness to mooning.

But even given this knowledge, Bruegel’s irreverence is still gobsmacking, especially in the context of a Gallery full of holy scenes. Joseph – tubby, lankhaired – is as common as muck, sharing some gossip or other with an ear-bending neighbour. Jesus himself is a cheeky wee scamp; he eyes the kneeling Magi with a knowing smirk. It is said of this painting that all the bystanders are staring at the treasure rather than the infant Christ and thus Bruegel is satirising human greed. I’m not so sure about this: they seem to me to be just generally gawping at the toffs and the palaver, but they are certainly caricatures – check out the chaps on the far right, one with comedy spectacles, the other a personification of shameless nosy-parkery. They rather remind me of the Beano‘s Bash Street Kids.

Yet despite the irreverence, it is not a sacrilegious painting. Mary has a serenity about her, emphasised by the crafty halo created by Joseph’s hat. Above her head, the soldier’s pike rises in a straight line to crown the scene with an ominous Christian cross.

For me, the key to the sense of the painting is in the Kings themselves. According to the National’s website, “the elongated figures of the Kings are characteristic of a painting style that was fashionable around this time”. Maybe so, but why are the Kings’ robes so comically over-elaborate: ill-fitted to their spindly, Mervyn Peake-ish frames and dragging inelegantly in the mud? Why the cartoonish faces (two are decrepit, the other more of a guileless naif than a Wise Man)?

My take on it is that Bruegel is poking fun not at the Christian story itself, but at the Kings’ pomposity and presumptuousness in turning up in the role of Great Men – and thereby he is poking fun at man’s pomp and circumstance in general. This, in a way, is a very pious sentiment: the Kings are no better or worse than the peasants; only Jesus and his mother should be revered.

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11 thoughts on “National treasures – Bruegel: The Adoration of the Kings

    ian russell
    November 8, 2010 at 09:49

    The whole painting is as a cartoon (as in Daily Paper). Baby Jesus has the smallest noggin I’ve ever known on a new born while Mary’s hands are so generously proportioned, I’m sure she could play in goal for Beitar Jerusalem. (In fact, that might be a scout having a quiet word in Joe’s shell-like).

    November 8, 2010 at 11:39

    Spot on Brit. And not just for the Whig bashing: a fine sport, but not one to be over-indulged in.

    The National Gallery is one of our greatest gifts. Great because it, uniquely in my experience, provides easy access to the greatest of treasures.

    At the risk of coming all theological over your post, the fact that it is populated by distinctly unprepossessing individuals is precisely the point. That is where the church is, amongst the vulgar mass, rather than the over-endowed, whether that endowment be aesthetic, intellectual, material or power. GKC got the point quite well about the necessary vulgarity when he commented on the Catholic church – “Here comes the world!”.

  3. Worm
    November 8, 2010 at 11:44

    Brilliantly concise review. I always loved Bruguel’s ‘Adoration of the Kings in the Snow’ too, which just seems so coldly, darkly ‘medieval’. The thing I love most about the painting above are the eye popping pigments used in the green, pink and blue robes

    November 8, 2010 at 12:53

    Ian – yes, I’ve always found it odd and a bit annoying that so many great artists seem to struggle with infant proportions. Jesus very often looks like a teeny bald bloke, such as Paul Daniels.

    Thanks, R and W. Yes, the pink robe in particular is beautifully painted, as well as being comical.

    November 8, 2010 at 13:07

    Thanks for this enriching insight into one of our national art treasures. Re: the kings’ robes – looks to me as if there were some curiously creative fashion designers around at the time.. These outfits wouldn’t look out of place on today’s catwalks.

    November 8, 2010 at 13:54

    Look at the fellow with the metal helmet and axe on the far left. Is he rolling his eyes? My God, I could swear it’s the young Dawkins.

    November 8, 2010 at 14:00

    There’s a character in Firbank who likes to pop in to the National Gallery to fix her hair in front of the Madonna of the Rocks.

  8. Worm
    November 8, 2010 at 14:04

    hadn’t noticed it before but it would appear that the crossbow weilding chap appears to have a comedy arrow stuck through his head

    November 8, 2010 at 16:28

    To me, the baby in this picture doesn’t look so much ‘wrong’, as purposefully painted in a way that makes him look like a tiny, naked, vulnerable person. Is he really smirking? Again, I’d read that twisting body and half-averted face as the way a baby looks when he is about to start howling in protest at something – the ‘something’ in this case being the scene that Mary points out to him. He’s seeing that these ridiculous, repulsive, unprepossessing creatures, with their over-fancy clothes and bestial faces, are what he’s been sent to redeem – the sorry rabble for whose eternal souls he’s going to give his life. The bright acid colours just make the nakedness and ‘unstained’ quality of the poor little baby all the more evident. I have always found it a rather upsetting but very ‘theological’ painting for that reason. Bruegel, as a typical 16th century bloke rather than a Whig, took for granted a fairly bleak view of the human condition and painted accordingly.

    (PS This all sounds as if I’m arguing with Brit but I’m not, really – that was a very good review, in that it raised new questions in my mind about a painting I thought I knew very well, and anyway I don’t see any reason why, particularly when a painting is ‘about’ something as personal as faith, it shouldn’t mean very different things to different people.)

  10. Brit
    November 8, 2010 at 16:47

    Absolutely Barendina – all of the posts in this series will be personal takes (while trying to avoid wilful contrarianism).

    Your interpretation of the baby Christ as shying away from the offerings is the one in both the National Gallery’s audio tour and in a (lovely) book about the gallery by Erika Langmuir. I don’t see it that way myself, but I suppose everyone should go to look at the painting close up and decide for themselves!

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