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Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-69)

Massacre of the Innocents c.1565-67

109.2 x 158.1 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 405787

King's Closet, Windsor Castle

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  • According to St Matthew’s Gospel, after hearing from the wise men of the birth of Jesus, King Herod ordered that all children in Bethlehem under the age of two be murdered. Bruegel set the story as a contemporary Brabantine atrocity so that the soldiers wear the distinctive clothing of the local officials who enforced public order. The artist also drew upon his experience of the exceptionally severe winter of 1564-5 to describe a village covered in snow, with icicles hanging from the rooftops and the pond in the foreground thickly frozen over. Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents was a popular image, repeated numerous times by Bruegel’s imitators. The best versions (Brussels, Vienna. etc) are by the artist’s son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and are of vital importance. They reproduce, evidently with great accuracy, the appearance of the original before it was overpainted.

    The painting came into the possession of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, in Prague. The slaughtered babies were painted over with details such as bundles, food and animals so that, instead of a massacre, it appeared to be a more general scene of plunder. The biographer, Karel van Mander, described it as a 'Massacre' in 1604; it had become a ‘village plundering’ when recorded in an inventory of 1621. Traces of the infants can be seen through the over-paint. The flames added in the sky over the houses were cleaned off in 1941, but it was decided during its full conservation treatment in 1988 to leave the more substantial (and historically significant) alterations to the figures, where animals and inanimate objects are painted over the details of children being slaughtered.

    The painting includes multiple narratives. According to his usual practice, Bruegel requires us to understand each episode in succession. In the background, immediately below the church, a father tries to smuggle his baby to safety, though the mounted soldier on the bridge behind and the many horses tethered (their riders presumably searching houses) suggest that he is unlikely to succeed. In the left background a soldier urinates against a wall. A soldier herds women into a house at the extreme left; another soldier carries a baby (one of the few that have not been changed) out of a nearer door, while against the wall of the same house some neighbours seem to be consoling a grieving mother. Moving to the right, a standing woman grieves over her dead baby lying in the snow (changed to an array of hams and cheeses); a couple seem to beg a soldier to take their daughter rather than kill their baby son (changed to a goose or swan); a huddle of villagers console or restrain a father who might otherwise attack the Lansquenet (German mercenary) in striped hose who guards a dead baby (changed to a bundle). A seated woman grieves with her dead baby (changed to a bundle) on her lap. A group of soldiers stab with pikes at a pile of babies (changed to livestock) to ensure that they are all dead; women run off in horror as another Lansquenet stabs a baby (changed to a young boar); a soldier stabs at a baby (changed to a pitcher) cradled by a seated woman. At this point a distinct group forms as ugly and ridiculous-looking villagers remonstrate with a young, elegantly-dressed herald who originally had the symbol of the Habsburg eagle on his tabard (overpainted with a simple decoration).

    At the extreme right soldiers are forcing entry to an inn: one wields an axe and one a battering ram, three climb in at the shutters, one kicks down a courtyard door, thereby dislodging an icicle that will fall on his head like divine vengeance. Reading across the foreground right to left we see a baby (changed to a bundle) torn from a mother and her daughter. Two generations of a family grieve for a baby about to be stabbed (changed to a calf). At the left foreground another sergeant pursues a fleeing mother and child, a group not painted over though partly lost when this side of the panel was cut down at some point in the painting's history.

    The troop of armoured knights is led by a man, whose features have been altered. In the other versions of this painting he has the distinctive drooping eyes and long beard of the Duke of Alva, who harshly ruled the Netherlands for Philip II of Spain from 1567-73. Before it was painted over, the standard held by one of these soldiers displayed five gold crosses on a white ground - the arms of Jerusalem. Philip II of Spain claimed to be King of Jerusalem.

    Painted on four oak boards joined horizontally with a chalk and animal glue ground layer and a thin oil priming. The panel was trimmed slightly at some point - we do not know why or when - but only the top of Brueghel’s signature remains, now hidden by the frame rebate. The figures are underdrawn with a simple brushed line and the snow laid in around them in short, vigorous brushstrokes. The paint is applied with a remarkable inventiveness of handling: ranging from trails of impasto in the snow to delicate hatching in the faces, scoring and incising into the soft paint of the armour and scumbling with a dry brush in distant tree branches. The garments are painted in combinations of mineral and organic reds, blue and black and possibly an organic yellow. The villagers in plainer clothes, the invaders dressed in richly textured fabrics, more brightly coloured. Over centuries, alterations to the painting due to both natural aging of the paint but largely to its complicated conservation history have changed the painting’s appearance but not diminished the brilliance of Brueghel’s narrative skill and masterful technique.

    Catalogue entry adapted from Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting, London, 2007


    Acquired by Charles II in 1660 from William Frizell at Breda (List II no 3); recorded in the King's Privy Gallery at Whitehall in 1666 (no 145) and 1688 (no 84); in store at Kensington Palace in 1810 (no 94); in store at Carlton House in 1816 (no 205) and 1819 (no 36); at Windsor Castle in 1858

  • Medium and techniques

    109.2 x 158.1 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external)

    138.0 x 187.3 x 12.0 cm (frame, external)

  • Alternative title(s)

    The sacking of a village, previously entitled

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