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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Hopkins in Westworld

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rock and role: Jamie Bell's character Benjamin Grimm is transformed into 'Thing' in the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' 'Fantastic Four'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins veered between sycophancy and insult in her new chat show
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
In his role as Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch will have to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens with pupils at Hollins Technology College in Accrington
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The rapper Drake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The gaffer: Prince Philip and the future Queen in 1947
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Style icons: The Beatles on set in Austria
film
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future