Massacre of the Innocents Peter Paul Rubens Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The Massacre of the Innocents, painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1612, is one of a pair of paintings by this famous artist. The second work, completed much later in his life, is a different version of the same spectacle.

Rubens has displayed, in gory detail, a biblical scene as related to in the Gospel of Mathew. The subject, as the title suggests, is the massacre of innocent children by the soldiers of King Herod who had ordered the slaughter of all young males in Bethlehem.

In this horrific scene, so beautifully portrayed, there are groups of women under attack by the soldiers of Herod, and they are trying to prevent the attackers from killing their children. The eye of the viewer is drawn to one woman in the centre of the picture, she is holding up a blood-stained cloth, and on her face is an expression of despair. To her left and right are more woman and young children who are being subjected to unrestrained brutality by the soldiers. The desperate efforts of the mothers have no effect in stopping the carnage.

Rubens’ intention, with this painting, was to shock and unnerve as an outcry against the atrocities of war and violence. Despite the beautiful detail, colouring and chiaroscuro, the whole scene is one of desperation, pain, and destruction.

Between 1600, and 1608, Rubens spent time in Italy where he studied the works of Renaissance masters, including Tintoretto and Titian in Venice, and Michelangelo and Raphael in Rome. The pure drama, emotional dynamism, and the rich colouring and lighting effects present in this work of art are evidence of his learnings there.

Until 2001, it was believed that this painting was the work of one of Rubens’ assistants. When an art expert judged it to be an authentic Rubens, the painting was auctioned in London in 2002, and fetched £49.5 million. The purchaser was Canadian, Kenneth Thomson who donated the work to The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada.

Rubens is not the only artist to have portrayed this biblical event. Works of art entitled The Massacre of the Innocents have also been created by Peter Bruegel, around 1566, Giotto di Bondone in 1305, Duccio di Buoninsegna between 1308, and 1311, and Nicolas Poussin around 1628.

Not long before Rubens died, he reproduced the scene in another painting in 1636. Although the two paintings are similar, there are distinct differences. Whereas the first painting is very dramatic, the second version takes on a more realistic form. Some consider this version even more graphic than the first; the soldiers employ weapons in the intensified aggression, and blood flows in the street. On the left of the scene, a soldier can be seen skewering a baby with his sword. A mother lies on top of her baby in a vain attempt to save it, even though the baby is probably already dead. Other mothers grab hold of the swords with their hands in the futile hope that by sacrificing themselves, they might save their children.

In this second version of The Massacre of the Innocents, Rubens has included three angels who have a content, and almost gratified demeanour. The reason for including these angels is unclear as there were none in the first painting. Some have speculated that perhaps this was a touch of cynicism by Rubens, highlighting the fact that God has not intervened to save the innocents. This second version of The Massacre of the Innocents can be viewed at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich where it has been since 1706.

Born in 1577, Peter Paul Rubens, of Flemish nationality, was one of the most famous and prolific European artists of the 17th Century including the Baroque era. His work includes subjects from history, religion, and mythology. Rubens other well-known works include The Descent from the Cross, The Garden of Love, Peace and War, Self Portrait with Helena and Peter Paul, and Wolf and Fox Hunt.

Peter Paul Rubens was a master of the art of portraying multiple groups of figures in large-scale paintings. His style blended Renaissance idealisation of the mortal form with rich brushwork, dynamic poses, and a lively sense of realism. Rubens died in Antwerp in 1640, leaving eight children and many studio assistants, including Anthony van Dyck who continued with a successful art career of his own.