I confess that unlike W.H. Auden, I have never 'got on' with the Flemish masters. The poet (a Christ Church man) who later found fame as a writer on "Four Weddings and a Funeral", immortalised their daubings in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts written in the winter of 1938. In this flaccid, non-rhyming excuse for verse, which pays not the slightest attention to iambic pentameter, Auden implausibly argues that most tragedies, martyrdoms and cataclysms really play out quite unseen. That as Christ is crucified everybody else is too busy buying souvenirs and looking the other way to notice his sacrifice. That when Icarus falls spectacularly from the sky, the sailors of the Mediterranean are too occupied with the rigging to notice his 'epic' tumble. How when great events occur, "there always must be, children who did not specially want it to happen, skating on a pond at the edge of a wood." Nonsense.
The winter scene above by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, is just the sort of bunk Auden was struggling to explain. In this 'painting' the baby Jesus is rendered no more than a dull pink streak on the left hand side of the canvas. Indeed, more prominence is afforded a man carrying a cheap bucket away from a poorly cut hole in the ice than to the Christ child. As he does so, the three crudely painted Magi - Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar - curiously accompanied by a hobbit in a 'brown' dressing gown wait, like oddballs in a bus queue, as two rather effete soldiers in red stockings stand guard close by. The Bible is very specific on the visit of the Three Kings (Matthew 2 verses 1 to 12) and to the best of my recollection, red tights and a man with a bucket, do not feature.
The whole effect is to ridicule the Nativity, while simultaneously turning us into nothing more than 'voyeurs' who must crane our necks to see the action. The Brueghels and their ilk are highly revered by many today, but for my part I have long viewed them as nothing more than medieval 'spot the ball' merchants, endlessly repeating a tired old formula with subject matter that is far beyond their understanding. Speaking very much for myself, I do not wish to be an 'onlooker' - I want to be where the action is, in the front line, drinking in the sights, the sounds and smells of the manger, looking the bewildered Joseph in the eye or gazing upon the magnificent halo of a passing angel.
Indeed, unlike the superb paintings of say Vicente Collado the Flemish 'Masters' seem determined, like so many others who followed them, to take the story of Christ and make it all about themselves.
With only nine days to go until Christmas, many of you will be suffering the last minute anxiety of cards arriving from people one has forgotten existed. In such circumstances it is very tempting to send one's man out to buy a 'corps commanders reserve' and fire them off without thinking about the imagery on the front. My advice is to take a moment of reflection and look before you affix your postage stamp.
Hopefully, the scene will be relevant to this magical season and the birth of Christ; if it is a picture by any of the Brueghels however, my tip is this: send your man back to the shop, with clearer instructions.