Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Interpretation of Netherlandish Biblical Genre Painting

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Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Massacre of the Innocents
By Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Seen as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Massacre of the Innocents (c.1565-7)


Interpretation/Meaning of Massacre of the Innocents
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Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69)
Medium: Oil on oak panel
Genre: Biblical Christian art
Movement: Northern Renaissance (Flanders)
Location: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna and British Royal Collection.

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Analysis of Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

One of the greatest Renaissance paintings of Northern Europe, this chilling piece of religious art is Bruegel's reworking of a Biblical event (the killing of all newborn boys in Bethlehem, under the orders of King Herod - Matthew 2:16-18) in a contemporary setting. The scene is thus a Flemish village and the massacre of the children is being performed by a band of heavily armed cavalrymen. "Peasant" Bruegel was known for his genre and landscape painting - often based on open-air sketches of life in rural hamlets - and would no doubt have heard of villages being plundered in various parts of Flanders by troops of the occupying Spanish army. There are two versions of this picture, neither of them signed or dated: one in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, the other in the British Royal Collection at Hampton Court Palace. The original is probably the panel at Hampton Court, even though it has suffered considerable damage, but the Vienna picture (a studio copy, possibly completed by the artist himself) represents Bruegel's original intentions more clearly, notably in the depiction of the slaughtered children which have been removed in the other version. Both religious paintings were made about 1565 and exemplify Netherlandish Renaissance art of the 16th-century.



Anti-War Image

As in a number of his other panel paintings such as The Adoration of the Kings (1564, National Gallery, London), The Procession to Calvary (1564, KM, Vienna), and The Census at Bethlehem (1566, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), Bruegel has set an event from the Bible in a modern, low-key setting, in keeping with the new aesthetics of Protestant Reformation Art (c.1520-1700). Attempts have been made to see in the painting an allusion to the terror regime of the Duke of Alba, upon whom the white-bearded, black-clad leader of the horsemen is supposedly modelled. However, Bruegel's references are typically more subtle than this. So while it is quite possible that the murderous horsemen were based pictorially on Spanish cavalry - who were known for carrying their lances in an upright position - the Duke of Alba's expedition to repress heresy and crush dissent took place well after the painting of this picture and in fact there were no Spanish troops on Flemish soil between 1560 and 1567. Thus Bruegel was almost certainly condemning war and violence in general, rather than making a specific political point.

Bruegel-Style Detail

As in many of his other pictures - such as The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559), Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), Children's Games (1560), The Tower of Babel (1563), and others - The Massacre of the Innocents contains a wealth of carefully crafted detail. A whole family is shown begging with the soldiers for the life of a child; below the church, a father attempts to smuggle his child to safety; tethered horses in the middle distance suggest their riders are searching houses; distraught mothers lament the murder of their babies in the snow; a couple entreat a soldier to take their daughter rather than their baby son; a group of soldiers probe a pile of babies with their lances to check they are all dead; a group of villagers seek help from a young, well-dressed horseman, who is unable to help - in all likelihood he is intended to be a representative of the original Roman Empire that failed to rein in their regional satraps like King Herod (and the Holy Roman Empire of Maximilian II who failed to control its troops in Flanders). The stories being played out in the picture are almost endless.

In the iconography of this piece of Biblical art, Bruegel owes a significant debt to his predecessor Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). But if Bosch was the supreme fantasist, he remained a prisoner of his fantasies. Bruegel is at times equally inventive - see for instance works like The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), Triumph of Death (1562, Prado Museum, Madrid) and Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) (c.1562, Musee Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp) - but never loses sight of reality. He uses his fantasies to depict the way things truly are. The Massacre of the Innocents is Bruegel's image of the sort of traditional brutality meted out to helpless victims by men who have forgotten what real Christianity is all about.

Habsburg Collectors of Bruegel

Now regarded as the greatest of all Northern Renaissance artists of 16th century Flanders, Bruegel's surviving paintings number about 45, of which about 15 are owned by the palatial Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Intended to unite the three great art collections of Archduke Ferdinand II (1529–1595), Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612) and Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (1614–1662) - all ruling members of the Imperial House of Habsburg - the Kunsthistorisches Museum's unique holding of Bruegels suggests that his anti-war stance was not seen in any way as a partisan stance in the troubles between the Flemish peasantry and their colonial masters.



More Information

For more about Bruegel's Flemish painting, see the following articles:

Hunters in the Snow (1565) K.M., Vienna.
Peasant Wedding (1568) K.M., Vienna.
Parable of the Blind (1568) Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

• For more Northern Renaissance panel paintings, see our main index: Homepage.

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