Famous Artwork: Massacre of the Innocents

Some of painter Peter Paul Rubens's famous paintings in his home in Antwerp, Belgium.  Editorial credit: Pecold / Shutterstock.com
Some of painter Peter Paul Rubens's famous paintings in his home in Antwerp, Belgium. Editorial credit: Pecold / Shutterstock.com

Over the years, several artists including Cornelis van Haarlem, Jacopo Tintoretto, François-Joseph Navez, and Peter Paul Rubens have depicted the massacre in paintings. Rubens’ two paintings of the massacre are the most common because of the clarity and vivid description of the infanticide.

Biblical History

According to a biblical account as presented by the Gospel of Matthew, King Herold the Roman-appointed King of the Jews ordered the execution of all newborn male children in Bethlehem after the wise men told him that a new king had been born in the city. Herold feared that the birth of a new king would lead to his downfall and sought to kill all the male babies. The biblical account of the execution was later referred to as the Massacre of the Innocents. Although the account is reported in the Gospel of Matthew (2:16), several historians who have studied ancient Roman and Jewish history dispute the account. Historians E. P. Sanders and Geza Vermes are among those who have disputed the account and termed it a creative hagiography.

The Massacre of the Innocents by Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens painted the first painting of the Massacre of the Innocents between 1611 and 12 after returning to Antwerp, Belgium from Italy where he had spent eight years. The painting alongside his other painting of Samson and Delilah were stored in Vienna Austria as part of the Liechtenstein Collection. The Liechtenstein family seal was embedded in the paintings until the 19th century. The painting was later sold to an Austrian family in 1920 and subsequently loaned to Stift Reichersberg in 1923. In 2002 the painting was sold to a Canadian art collector Kenneth Thomson for £49.5 million. It was loaned to the National Gallery, London until 2008 when it was moved to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada. Between 1636 and 1638, Rubens painted another version of the Massacre of the Innocents which was acquired in 1706 by the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany where it continues to hang to date.

The Massacre of the Innocents by Bruegel

Other versions of the Massacre of the Innocents were painted by Pieter Bruegel and his son Pieter Brueghel Junior. The only version painted by Pieter Bruegel hangs at Windsor Castle in England. The painting is set to depict a similarity between the Roman soldiers and the Spanish army and German mercenaries attacking a village covered in snow during the severe winter of 1564-5. Instead of depicting the slaughter of children like the other paintings, it shows soldiers engaging in vandalism and looting, scattered food, animals left unattended, and a generally chaotic scene. A woman wailing over her dead baby is found at the center of the painting which is used to signify that killing of the innocent was happening during the chaos. Pieter Brueghel Junior painted several versions of his father’s painting. One is found in Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna while another version was sold at the Christie's auction 2012 for £1.8m. The National Museum of Art of Romania houses another version while a further version was sold in 2009 at the cost of £4.6m.


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