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
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map