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.
See Allegory of Sight by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens.
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
David Jaffé on The Massacre of the Innocents: A not-to-be-missed ticket this Wednesday night
October 25th, 2011
David Jaffé on The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens
This Wednesday night join us at the AGO to hear the story behind one of our most famous and valuable paintings, The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens. Tickets cost just $22.50 ($20.50 if you’re a member or a mere $17 if you’re a student), but if you need some more convincing here are a few more reasons we think it’d be great to attend.
- Your speaker is David Jaffé. Not only is he Senior Curator in the Department of Painting at the National Gallery in London, he is also a world authority on Rubens. He’s published several books on the subject of the great painter and is bound to have some fascinating insights into his life and his work.
- He’s also brilliant at putting Rubens’ work into context for a modern audience. Check out this video where he compares horses in the 17th century to ‘sexy Lamborghinis.’
- Ken Thomson acquired the painting at auction at Sotheby’s for £49.5 million, a record for an Old Master at the time and still a huge amount today. Not to give too much away, but the story of how he tracked it down to an isolated monastery is a good one. Today the painting is one of the jewels of the AGO’s Thomson Collection thanks to his generous donation to the Gallery.
David Jaffé on The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens from The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (DVD)
- With Halloween just around the corner you might well be in the mood for some blood and guts. Massacre of the Innocents shows the slaying ordered by King Herod when he was told by the Three Wise Men that a King of the Jews had been born, and decided to prevent him from becoming a rival. Mary, Joseph and their new born child were already on their way to Egypt. It depicts, amongst other things, a man with a baby raised above his head, preparing to dash it to the ground. Gruesome.
- The scene itself has been depicted throughout history and often has political as well as religious significance. Discover why Rubens’ version stands out and hear about the conditions at the time which informed his interpretation.
- The painting itself is awe-inspiring. Dramatic and emotional, it demonstrates the influence on Rubens by Italian painters such as Carvaggio. However, the painting has only been recognised as a true Rubens since 2001 – before that it had been miscategorised as belonging to one of his assistants.
If you have any more questions about tonight’s talk or to book your tickets please visit http://www.ago.net/david-jaffé or call us on 1 877 225 4246. If you’re unable to make the talk on Wednesday but you would like to learn about The Massacre of the Innocents you can follow along on our liveblog, which will appear on http://www.artmatters.ca
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