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Speaking from his Mayfair gallery, he was describing his first sight of a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger that has for the years since its creation been completely unknown to the world. The owners had never publicised their precious possession, although they were well aware of its pedigree. Until the s they even had among the family papers the original receipt, Van Haeften tells me, made out in Antwerp in for the purchase price of florints. If that mislaid piece of paper ever comes to light, it will in itself be a fascinating object for art historians. After its purchase the work simply disappeared from public view into quiet domesticity, and for four centuries its very existence has remained unknown even to the most assiduous of Brueghel scholars. And of all the extraordinary circumstances of this remarkable story, the oddest — perhaps — is that Van Haeften discovered it in Africa. Taken to east Africa together with other family possessions in the s, the picture was for many years on loan to the family of Lord Delamere in the Rift Valley, and is now owned by offshore trustees of the Delamere family.
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The copy in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh was probably produced before Pieter Bruegel the Younger and his workers made a total of thirteen. These differ from the original in their colours and sometimes because an element from the original has been left out or changed. Intriguingly, there is one detail that appears on all the copies. This can only be seen in the preparatory drawing done by Bruegel the Elder. Conclusion: Pieter the Younger used this drawing by his father when making his copies.
In the middle of a snowy landscape, villagers are busy. We are in Flanders, as indicated by the typically Flemish stepped gable of the house at the bottom. A host of characters is converging on an inn in the foreground. They are coming to pay their taxes, in cash or in kind: chickens, eggs, wheat But now a strange group comes forward. A woman dressed in blue and sitting on an ass is accompanied by an ox and a man carrying a saw. These are the Virgin Mary and Joseph the carpenter, the parents of Christ. They have come to register in their hometown, as the law required. The painter takes the opportunity to locate the scene in a region familiar to him, Flanders, whereas this biblical episode takes place in Bethlehem, today in Palestine.