Bruegel’s “Adoration of the Magi” (1564)

/ /

There is so much to see, so much that we were never told, had hardly thought through. The shed is crowded into the oaken panel, which is cropped at the top and on both sides, making it as claustrophobic as it must have been for those gathered there. Shoulder to shoulder, they stand and stare, seeing what we see—Mary, who seems to have a sleepy secret only she can keep, offering her child with an extended hand, her face half-hidden, eyes half-closed, lowered, watching her son. Behind her, her husband is being whispered in one ear, some explanation he, no doubt, cannot fully comprehend.

………………………………………..Two of the kingly visitors bow before the child, his face already old, fixed in a forced grin. He seems to cringe, as if he is almost afraid. One hand holds his mother’s hand, the other struggles to free it- self from the shroud-like cloth he is already caught up in. Behind them, one dumb-struck soldier stares bug-eyed directly at the baby. He holds his hammer-like pike, fashioned in the form of a cross, above Mary’s bowed head, precisely in the center of the scene.

The crowd of men and soldiers, hovering near, seem to be more interested in the wise men than the mother and her child. Off to the side, waiting his turn, the tall Black magus (all the figures are elongated), in creamy leather, leans against the outer edge of the frame, his head turned sharply aside, his eyes aglare, focused on something some- where out of sight, off to the left, where some other one waits and watches him— with us. His head is crowned with gold prongs fixed in a tightly bound bandana. His red-orange boots have shining spurs.

Waiting to take his turn to bow before the baby, he holds his gift—a golden boat encrusted with a snail-like shell of green gemstone cradled within it. Within that, a small monkey has half-emerged, holding in his tiny hands a ring with a bubble of emerald braided into the golden band. It is as if he is offering another offering of his own. The anchor-chain of the boat is loosely laced through the magi’s fingers, dangles from his gloved-black fist.

We stare and stare, as if we were there, seeing ourselves in this scene—not as observers, but as participants—caught up in what, finally, is difficult to comprehend, and trying to put it into some semblance of order, make sense of the sense of it —the way Bruegel has tried to do too.