Sunday, December 16, 2018

Micah 5.2-5a: O Little Town of Antwerp

The prophet Micah points to Bethlehem as the place of origin of the one who will rule Israel (Micah 5:2-5a). When Micah is quoted in Matthew's gospel the description includes the clarification that though Bethlehem is small, it is "by no means least" among the tribes. By no means least, because from Bethlehem - the city of David - would come greatness. In fact, the path of God's saving plan will go right through Bethlehem. Which for Pieter Bruegel looks an awful lot like a 16th-century village in Flanders. The architecture, clothing, activities, and landscape transport us immediately to the artist's time.

The Census at Bethlehem shows a small town filled with people and activity in the middle of winter. People have returned to Bethlehem to be counted, and people who live in Bethlehem are going on about their daily lives. Firewood is being unloaded from a cart. A pig is being slaughtered. Children are skating on the frozen pond. Snowball fights are going on. People gather around an outdoor fire and stand in line outside a pub. In all the activity, you might miss the man with his carpenter's saw leading a donkey on which a woman in blue is riding.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Numbering at Bethlehem. Brussels: Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. 1566.
But that man and woman are the most important part of the picture. They are the means by which the salvation of the world will come from Bethlehem. And for Bruegel, the world that needs saving isn't just first-century Palestine. Bruegel includes details that echo the biblical story but are his contemporary experience. Though the painting refers to Luke's idea of a census or "numbering" bringing people to Bethlehem, there is in fact a tax collection going on at the window of the building on the left.
The collection of taxes by an occupying government was a familiar sight to Bruegel. At the time this picture was painted, Spain controlled the Netherlands. The Hapsburg kings who reigned in Spain levied heavy taxes not just on individuals but on the textile industry and on cities in the Netherlands in order to pay for Spain's ongoing wars. In Bruegel's painting the tax collector has hung out a sign with the double-headed eagle that was the emblem of the Hapsburg empire (detail above).

In addition to the contentious economic relationship between the Netherlands and Spain, there were also religious clashes between Roman Catholic Spain and an increasingly Protestant Netherlands. Philip II sent the Duke of Alva to the Netherlands to put down the religious rebellion. The Duke is said to have boasted that more than 18,000 Dutchmen died on the scaffold at his direction. Later estimates put the number of executions at 6,000. In a letter to his sister, Margaret of Parma, Philip II said that he would give up 100,000 lives (if he had them) to prevent the Protestant heresy from taking hold in the Netherlands (15 July 1562). In 1566 Bruegel painted a companion piece to the Numbering - Massacre of the Innocents - set in the same Flemish Bethlehem.

The Bethlehem of scripture was the same as Bruegel's village: no grand cosmopolitan place but a small town of ordinary people trying to live their ordinary lives while at the mercy of a government that controlled their lives. Nevertheless, the prophet assured Bethlehem that greatness was to come from her. And so it did. Do you live in Bethlehem?

For a poem that relates to this Bruegel painting, see this week's Art&Faith Matters post here.
For thoughts on Luke 1:39-45, click here.

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