The coat of arms of the Empire in Bruegel’s Census at Bethlehem, Continuity of the centre
Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life
(Oscar Wilde, in the Decay of Lying)
Continuity of the centre, in the policital sense of the word, can be expressed at numerous scales, one of them is art: one of the research hypotheses of this site is that art is not gratia artis but usually embeds political messages, pro or contra power in place. In some cases the intended message against power can be used by that very power as a tool of propaganda and for this power’s profit. The example we present today is The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (and its copies by his son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger). We will discuss Bruegel’s painting and how power is embedded and represented in a subtle way that to make of the scene, consciously or not, a propaganda for the Holy Roman Empire. We begin by an account of the Bruegels and of the Holy Roman Empire, then an account of the painting. We will discuss power relations as represented by the Empire’s coat of arms in the scene before proceeding to some possible results of our analysis.
We already discussed the continuity of the centre in terms of topography and how “sacred geography” can turn into a scientific one in the article on the Point Zéro of France. Today our discussion is about how political centre “regenerates” itself in art and thus assures its own continuity in terms of representations.
The Bruegels and The Census at bethlehem
The Bruegels are a family of artists and painters: Pieter Bruegel the Elder was married to a daughter of Pieter Coecke van Aelst (c.1502-1550, a painter at the Imperial court), and Mayken Verhulst (c.1520-1600, herself a famous miniaturist); the Bruegel sons became painters and fathered other painters. The family tree is visible on this link.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) painted the First Census at Bethlehem around 1566 as an account of the Biblical story of Christ’s Nativity put in the set of the painter’s time. He passed away some years later, but his son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger (c.1564-1636), made thirteen copies of the painting of his father, more or less true to the original one. Thus today there are more than a dozen of them in museums. The original one is a part of the permanent collection of the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts of Brussels, Belgium.
The Low Countries under the Empire, a political account
Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube – ‘Let others wage war: thou, happy Austria, marry’. Thanks to numerous marriages of the House of Habsburg of Austria and to different succession laws of different countries, Charles V of Habsburg became one of the strongest monarchs in the world. His family, the Habsburgs, besides having the Imperial dignity of the West (the Holy Roman Empire’s), had many thrones in Europe: Bohemia, Hungary, Naples, Milan, and the Low Countries. Thus Charles V was also the lord of the Low Countries, inherited from his father Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy and first Habsburg king of Spain jure uxoris (The successions of the different Habsburg Monarchy estates are detailed in this site dedicated to the Habsburg Family, their timeline and their possessions).
By the end of life of Charles V his empire was the biggest in Europe of that time (See FIGURE 1). Charles V (FIGURE 2) is usually represented with his coat of arms , the one of the (Holy) Roman Emperors, in the contemporary sources: the coat of arms of the Empire was the personal coat of arms of the Emperor in a rule still followed today in monarchies. The age of Charles V was full of challenges for him: the Turks subjugated Constantinople and are advancing in the heart of Europe, Martin Luther is trying to reform the Church in Germany and the Wars of Religion begin, and the New World is being made.
After the death of Charles V the Imperial dignity went to his brother, Ferdinand I; and the throne of Spain to his son, Philip II, who also inherited the Low Countries. The rule of Philip II was famous for heavy taxes and military activity which weighed much over economy and well being of the population. The Northern part of the Low Countries (the United Provinces) broke away from Philip II in 1581 in what came to be known as Act of Abjuration or Dutch Independence. The Southern parts continued to complain because of the heavy taxes. Art in both parts, Nothern and Southern Low Countries, was used to convey messages: the pros and the contras painted and produced art to support their points of views and to embed political messages for or against the Holy Roman Empire of the Habsburgs: still viewed as one “family estate” of the two Habsburg branches of Spain and Austria.
The Census at Bethlehem, interpreted as a political account
Bruegel treats a Biblical event but in the contemporary context of his [the painter’s] time, and by depicting the famous census of Christ’s Nativity story, spatially and temporally, in a Low Countries’ locality. The Gospel according to Luke (2:1-5) reads:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
Bruegel depicts this Biblical text in a set of the XVIth-Century Flemish village: snow is omnipresent (The Bruegels would be the ones to be thanked for “white Christmas” tradition), children and adults play with and on ice. On the lower left of the painting, its visual centre, two bourgeois men are collecting taxes, very heavy, paid by peasants. And in the lower central part of the scene Joseph and pregnant Mary can be seen, hurrying as she is approaching her labour.
The painting carries a political “blink” and a parallel between the Jews of the time of Christ, then under the Roman Empire, and the Dutch/Flemings under the Holy Roman Empire of the Habsburgs: both suffer from the financial and military yoke of the big hegemonic “foreign” power controlling them. People queue to register, and to pay “what is Caesar’s“, taxes to the Empire. Bruegel the Elder was not far from the Imperial Court (his father-in-law was an Imperial painter of Charles V), but he certainly wanted to reflect popular feelings of the Low Countries of his time: taxes were too heavy and open complain was not rare, as said before. Bruegel put a faint fallen wheel in the snow, into the geometrical centre of the painting, as if to say that “nothing works as it should” and the Low Countries are fainting as they have no more political and financial means to advance because of policies viewed as wrong at different scales and levels.
Yet, astonishingly enough, and as we said before, there are at least thirteen copies of this painting, made by Pieter Bruegel the Younger and following the almost-exact same lines as the father’s, something unexpected as it supposedly criticises the Empire and its repressive financial policy. We find these copies around in the Empire and where they could not survive without, at least implicit, approval of this very Empire. Some accounts say that the first painting could have been commissioned by Hieronimo de Curiel, factor of Philip II in the Low Countries. We will point out to some feature of the painting and which can be the explanation for this paradox.
Coat of arms of the Roman/Holy Roman Empire in the painting
Lower left (FIGURE 4), in the building where people gather to pay, there is a coat of arms hanged on the walls at the entry: the bicephal eagle of the Habsburg Emperors and the Holy Roman Empire (a black eagle on a golden escutcheon, see FIGURE 1 and FIGURE 5 for a clearer view). The existence of this discreet coat of arms can be the most important feature of the painting, or at least a decisive part of the Empire’s consent of producing and showing numerous copies of it.
Coats of arms were not mere “decorations” on the walls. They were and still are a cornerstone in power’s semiotic dimension. A blason of a state or of a monarch is a product and a main attribute of power reigning over the place: thus a coat of arms is not meant to “adorn” the wall in Bruegel’s painting but to affirm to the spectator that the place, the set, the space and the country belong to the Holy Roman Empire.
The Census and the Roman Empire: continuity of the centre
The supposed continuity of the Roman Empire, from the time of Augustus Caesar down to the reign of Charles V, Philip II and Rudolf II (then Emperor) is obvious in showing this blason on the wall of a state administration. We can define some features of the existence of this coat of arms on the walls:
1- The political centre, here the Roman Empire, is still the same: Holy Roman Emperors (Charles V and his successors down to Rudolf II, the Emperor) and kings of Spain (after Charles V, Philip II and Philip III) reign in the name of the (Holy) Roman Empire and count as direct heirs to Augustus and Constantine and Theodosius and then Charlemagne, of the Western line of Roman Emperors. The symbol of the Empire of Bruegel’s time was used for Christ’s time and in the same perspective proposed by the use of a Flemish-village scene. But in the present symbol’s parallel the Holy Roman Empire, officially reigning over the Low Countries, is a direct heir and a continuity of the old Roman Empire of the time of Augustus Caesar.
2- The coat of arms used in not exactly the one of Philip II, king of Spain and lord of the Low Countries in the time of Bruegel the Elder (copied by his son): the bicephal eagle always represents the Roman Empire and is used as personal symbol of the Roman Emperor. Yet the Bruegels ignored, consciously, the fact that Philip II did not inherit the Imperial dignity from his father (it went to his uncle, Ferdinand I then to his issue down to Rudolf II). There might be two solutions of this paradox: A first explanation is that the Bruegels chose to put the blason of the State suzerain of the Low Countries, in this case the Holy Roman Empire (with Philip III of Spain as one of its princes and of its Imperial house); a second explanation is that the Bruegels took the “easy way” and considered the Habsburgs as a whole: Spanish or Austrian, they hold the Imperial dignity and thus the coat of arms represents the family in its entirety.
3- The painting can be regarded as a magnificent propaganda for the Habsburgs and the Empire: the Empire under which Christ is born is the Habsburgs’! It is the same Roman Empire which has been on continuity since Augustus and down till the reign of Rudolf II and Philip III. By putting the Habsburg Empire in this perspective, Bruegel, maybe unconsciously (or maybe not), gave a great legitimacy to the Spanish monarchs, reigning in the name of their Imperial Habsburg brothers, on the Low Countries: the same Empire that Christ chose to be born in is still “alive” thus its power “is given from above” according to the words of Christ to Pontius Pilate (John 19:11), used by Christian Roman Emperors to assure a Divine origin of their rule:
Jesus answered [Pilate], Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.
The propaganda is clear now: the projection of the contemporary Emperor’s coat of arms into the history of the Roman Empire and the Nativity story is a great legitimisation of the Holy Roman Empire: it is but the same Empire whose power “is given from above”. We can remember that the copies were made after the Act of Abjuration and the Declaration of Independence of the United Provinces: the northern part of the Low Countries was in a brutal war with the Empire, thus the latter needed to show its legitimate claim to rule over the rebels, therefore what can be better than the Bible itself as a legitimising text? Paintings were “visual Bibles” made in order to let everyone contemplate life of Christ: thus the coat of arms of the Empire is but a part of Biblical text, according to The Census.
A Divine political centre
Pregnant Mary and Joseph are heading to the table of tax collectors, under the sign of the Empire (FIGURE 6): the Holy family are but subjects of Holy Roman Emperors, according to Bruegels’ version of the Nativity story. Caesar and God are facing each other: but power balance is clear as Caesar controls the scene. We can imagine how the painting was used to teach people about Christmas: simple people see their to-be-born God under the auspices of their Emperor: the political centre of their God is also their very political centre: and this is not only because God wants it but because history does, too. Can there be a better legitimisation for the Holy Roman Empire who claims to be universal, very universal, to the point that even God was born under its rule?
In the context of that time: the Northern parts breaking aways from the Habsburgs and the Wars of Religion, this divine legitimacy seems very important for the Empire. A simple coat of arms could establish a continuity between the political centre of the old Roman Empire of the time of Christ and the one in the time of the painter and copies: thus legitimacy of the State could be assured as its political centre, the Emperor and (nominally) Rome has not changed.
The original painting of Bruegel the Elder was meant to blink of the heavy taxes and levies the Empire imposes on people of the Low Countries, thus it was meant to show “badness” of power. But apparently the very power used the painting for its own profit and to show its roots in space and time, thus its legitimacy.
We can ask a bigger question: how does political centre manipulate art? How art, meant to be critical, can be turned into propaganda for the very political centre it is supposed to criticise? A great question for doctoral work.
 The name is different according to different references: Bruegel, Brueghel, Breughel, and Breugel. We have chosen the first spelling as it is the surname chosen by Bruegel the Elder (he dropped the “h” from his surname).
 The Holy Roman Empire (Heiliges Römisches Reich in German and Sacrum Romanum Imperium in Latin) was the maedieval then modern continuity of the Empire of Charlemagne. In 800 the Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Western Roman Emperor, after the title had vanished for three hundred years (but the East Roman Empire survived till 1453). It was a multi-ethnic empire and with many constituent kingdoms and estates. The “official” capital and formal political centre was, of course, Rome. Yet Emperors had other cities of residence (residenzstädte) as centres of their political life and movements. Vienna was the Habsburg Imperial residence for almost five hundred years and till the dissolution of the Empire in 1806 during the Napoleonian wars in Europe.
The Low Countries were a part of the Holy Roman Empire since its foundation: the Northern part (roughly the today’s Netherlands) broke aways from the Empire in 1581. The Southern parts kept being a part of the Empire till its end.
 More precisely: the small coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire. The complete coat of arms is quite elaborate and its details would not be visible at such scale.
Further readings and articles used to write this analysis:
A good explanatory note on the Census at Bethlehem on the site of the Fine Arts Museum of Lille.
Digital copies of The Census at Bethlehem belong to the Public domain.