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The Census at Bethlehem

The Museum Mayer van den Bergh has two popular paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder that his son liked to – and frequently did – copy: The Census at Bethlehem is one of these.

The Census at Bethlehem

The Census at Bethlehem is a work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The original from 1566 is in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. The copy in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh was probably produced before 1600. Pieter Bruegel the Younger and his workers made a total of thirteen. These differ from the original in their colours and sometimes because an element from the original has been left out or changed. Intriguingly, there is one detail that appears on all the copies. This can only be seen in the preparatory drawing done by Bruegel the Elder. Conclusion: Pieter the Younger used this drawing by his father when making his copies.


Three in one

What can you see? In fact, there are three paintings in one: a religious painting, a scene from everyday life and a winter landscape. The Biblical story is that of Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary. They have to go to Bethlehem for the census decreed by the Roman emperor, Augustus. They are just arriving. Mary wears a blue cloak and sits on a donkey.

At the inn where they have to register, it’s busy: pigs are being slaughtered, children are playing, and people are crowding round to register. In the middle ground and background, children are larking around and adults are busy. At the back right you can see ruins and on the left is a church with houses around it.