December 14, 2007

He Came Like This?: A Consideration of "The Adoration of the Magi in Snow" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Adoration of the Magi in Snow
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
(~ 1525/1530-1569)
1567 - oil on wood

If you, like me, are new to this great work of art, stop here and open this piece full screen. You need to first react to this piece without a lot of commentary.

I showed this piece to our church family at a Wednesday night gathering and simply asked, "What do you see?" I did this without telling them the title of this painting and their observations were intriguing. Here are some of their comments....
"Lots of snow!"
"Looks like people are struggling just to walk."
"Is that a church on the right hand side? Are they building it, repairing it, or tearing it down?"
"All the people are dark."
"It's bleak."

After a few minutes of hearing their comments I shared the title, "The Adoration of the Magi in Snow" with them. Here's what they said then...
"Jesus wasn't born in the snow!"
"Where are they?"
"I'm pretty sure Bethlehem doesn't look anything like that."
"I don't see any manger scene in this painting."
"Are you sure there are magi in this painting?"
"If this painting is about worshiping the baby Jesus, why is everybody running around doing other stuff?"

Shortly after pointing out the enlightened magi all of their other observations began to coalesce into a firm understanding. Bruegel got the birth of Christ right and the message is inescapably powerful.

John 1:14 states, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." For Christ to come to Bruegel's world that meant a world of cold and darkness; a world of self-absorbed survival. Into the business of drawing water and gathering wood Christ came. In the middle of a busy afternoon Christ arrived. Not in the middle of town but in a stable. Off the beaten path and out of sight. Only those who were looking for Him found Him. This truth speaks to us. We are intimately acquainted with this condition.

After viewing this work by Bruegel I have found myself wondering what he would have painted if he were from Alabama instead of Northern Europe. I'm pretty certain there would be a train passing through town in the background with a couple of log trucks waiting at the crossing gate. There would be some old timers smoking cigarettes outside the auto parts store, a few teenagers oblivious to all but themselves and their cell phones, the trustee's from the local prison cleaning the curbs, and the stop light dutifully changing from red to green. Somewhere on the edge, maybe at the flop house that passes for a hotel in our town, would be the marvelous event. Sure, a few would notice the strangers in town and wonder what was going on but wouldn't be concerned about their presence so long as they didn't hang around too long.

That pretty well sums up our experience with this marvelous event. Whether it's trudging through a relentless snow or through an uninspiring life we're not likely to look up and discover the marvel among us. The very thing that could bring hope to this hopelessness will likely, yet again, pass unnoticed by the vast majority of us as we fight the crowd at the mall or spend unnecessary energy on cleaning the curtains for the company that's coming. He is Immanuel. God with us. Right here. Right now. Oh for the grace to see Him.

(Be sure to read Carol's review of this work and check here for more advent reading.)


Carol L. Douglas said...

You write a beautiful image of a small town. Between you and Toby you make me want to paint this idea, because although Bruegel has done it, we no longer read his painting as workaday—to you it’s as exotic as the Holy Land.

What IS that building on the right? The windows don’t necessarily mean it’s a church—it could be any municipal or court building. But if it is a church, either coming or going, it lends credence to my speculation that Bruegel was a secret Protestant. (But from an art standpoint it just gives him an opportunity for a few more diagonals in his big pattern.)

Please extend my thanks to your congregation for their insightful comments.

Gwendolyn said...

Great job, John!

And you've noticed one of the things that I think strengthens iconography: when a painting has nothing superfluous in it, and only enough information to tell you what is going on, it tells its story more clearly than one that has lots of accurate local color... once the reader is no longer familiar with the local color.

I love the responses you got from your congregation! They really GOT it, before they knew what the painting was supposed to be about.

This painting doesn't call out to me in the way St. Joan did, but I see the people, going about their own business, nonetheless as a parade pointing ultimately at the Saviour. Rather like an overlay of Palm Sunday onto Epiphany! Or Epiphany prefiguring Palm Sunday.

That is one of the things I love about the many stories from the Bible. In the end, they are all one, they keep circling around and metamorphosing into each other.

And non-Christians wonder how Christians can believe in one God in three persons!

Mike said...

I would like to thank you for opening our eyes to art that I would not normally encounter.

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小小彬 said...