Great Works: The Adoration of the Kings 1564 (111.1 x 83.2cm), Pieter Bruegel the Elder

National Gallery, London

How "authentically" have the great painters evoked the birth of that miracle-working God man Jesus Christ of Nazareth? And does the idea of authenticity itself really make any sense anyway? Two particularly fine examples of Nativity scenes hang in London's National Gallery. The first is by the great Quattrocento Italian artist Piero della Francesca. They could not be more different from each other.

By and large, we could say that it has been the Italian habit to idealise the birth of Jesus – which is perfectly understandable given the nature of the subject matter, and the fact that the Vatican is in Italy. Who would not wish to represent what the culture commonly regards as a superhuman act in a manner that emphases its super-humanness? And yet the whole point of Jesus Christ, according to Christian belief, is that he was just as much man as god, and so to emphasise his supernatural nature wholly at the expense of his humanity, is to idealise one step too far...

Piero della Francesca's Nativity of 1470-5 hangs in a room that feels like a small, hushed, sacralised space. On the right hand wall hangs a gloriously reverential, monumentally serene nativity, in which the slender young virgin kneels in homage before her baby as an angelic team of lutinists and choristers process towards us, hymning, open-mouthed, the virgin's awe-struck, motherly response to the divine birth. So much for the religious content. The human factor is represented by the locale in which the scene is situated: it's a Tuscan spot – there's a Tuscan hill town on the horizon, a fairly decrepit Tuscan cow byre, and a thumpingly large Tuscan magpie. A sweet, yellow evening light is gently falling. Not a breath of chilling winter wind anywhere.

Over in Gallery 14 hangs Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Adoration of the Kings. This was painted in 1564, Michelangelo's death year, and Bruegel has signed and dated it, scratchily, in Roman numerals, at bottom right. The sight of this signature pleases. It is tangible evidence of the living, breathing presence of a painter who was always so breathingly, broodingly, bruisingly present in every painting, drawing and etching that he ever made – there was nothing hands off about Bruegel. Nor is there anything ethereal about this Nativity scene. In fact, it feels, in spite of the fact that its ostensible subject matter is the giving of the gifts, almost shockingly set apart from devotional sentiment.

This painting is entirely about the close scrutiny of human behaviour. Ideas of the divine barely get a look in. It is an amusing, intriguing, deflating look at what may have happened when the three kings came to pay homage to the infant with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We expect of a Nativity scene that the onlookers will be wholly focused upon the central mystery of the birth of the child, that the revered bambino will be surrounded by a kind of invisible aura. This doesn't happen here. Most of the onlookers are looking in different directions – at each other, at the astonishing gifts, at the even more astonishing presence of these elongated strangers, so wizened of face, with such lank and greasy hair, in their extravagantly colourful regalia.

The single most beguiling detail is a wonderful red, pointed boot worn by the black king on the right whose head is tricked out in a white bandana, and who also happens to be carrying the most curious of offerings – a gold boat evidently made by some master goldsmith, inside which sits a nautilus shell from which a mechanical monkey is emerging. Even stout Joseph is half distracted by the man who whispers a confidence into his ear. So our eye is constantly shifting all over the place, trying to see what each individual – and they are wholly individualised, each one – is so fixated by, trying to understand why the crowd consists, for the most part, of armed soldiers with their halberds, swords and crossbow at the ready. Bizarre in the extreme. Now look at that tiny man-child of an ugly baby. He too is behaving wholly uncharacteristically. He seems to be recoiling in horror from the gift of myrrh. Perhaps he is right to do so. Myrrh, after all, is used for the embalming of bodies. Or perhaps he is shrinking back from a face of extreme ugliness. Everything looks so secular here – expect perhaps for the look on the face of the virgin. She at least is behaving in a passably religious way, although the look on her face may merely be evidence of post-natal exhaustion. And what are all these soldiers with their fierce weaponry doing here anyway? Are they the hateful Spanish soldiery whose presence would still have been haunting Bruegel's homeland?

In short, this is a Flemish village scene. It is also, it could be argued, a lavish display of gloriously unflinching mockery at the expense of religion.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Pieter Bruegel was born in a village to the east of Antwerp in 1525, and died in Brussels in 1569. Best known for his crowded and rumbustious scenes of Flemish peasant life, he was greatly influenced in his compositional methods by Hieronymous Bosch. His canvases consist of crowded spectacles of teeming human life that take in baseness, disorder and hilarity.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering