Massacre of the Innocents c. 1611 – 12, has always been a popular theme in the visual arts, particularly during the Renaissance, when artists were rediscovering the antiquity and reinterpreting mythological and biblical narratives. The horrific depiction of infanticide ordered by King Herod to prevent the prophesied new King of the Jews taking over the throne was rendered by numerous masters from different epochs including Giotto di Bondone, Nicolas Poussin, Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Guidi Reni.
Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens did two versions on the Biblican fable some 25 years apart. The painting you are looking at is the first version that he worked on between 1611 and 1612. The near-naked soldiers are slaying the babies while the mothers are fiercely trying to save them. The central figure is a woman in blood-red dress falling backwards under the weight of an older woman about to be pierced by the soldier. She is desperately scratching another soldier’s face with her right hand and barely holding the baby with her left. It’s a struggle for survival. A tug of war where the stake is human life. She is pushing away the soldier as he is seen grasping at the baby’s loin cloths almost taking possession of the child.
Along the top right margin of the painting you see another tragedy about to happen: a baby held high above by another soldier is just about to be flung down on the ground already covered with pale, limb corpses. But there is hope as the young girl, seen by the solder’s left leg, raises her arms towards the baby, hoping to catch him. There is a lot going on in this painting but if you start off by observing these two groups in the center and on the right: the mother, her child, and the soldier – you will feel deeply the drama of the entire picture.
Rubens masterfully portrayed a wide range of emotions: desperation, violence, grief, motherly love and mercilessness. At the time when he completed The Massacre of the Innocents, it was intended as a commentary on the political and social situation in the Netherlands, which was in the midst of the Eighty Years’ War started as a revolt for independence. Thereby, the present painting could be a disquiet plea against war.
The Massacre of the Innocents was sold at auction in 2002 for a record £49.5 million or $76.7 million at Sotheby’s, London and donated by the buyer, Canadian businessman Kenneth Thompson, to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
This article ©galleryIntell. Image The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario