What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Peter Paul Rubens’ Masterpiece: Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1611-12)

“I’m just a simple man standing alone with my old brushes, asking God for inspiration.”  ~ Peter Paul Rubens

With so much violence being perpetrated in Syria, across the Middle East and in pockets around the world, it seems timely to revisit a powerful anti-war artwork by one of history’s greatest artists – the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.

Rubens’ visceral and heart-stopping visual depiction of the biblical story about the slaughter of the firstborn male babies in Bethlehem fills me with horror. It’s almost as if the heinous, frenzied energy portrayed within the lifelike pigments on the canvas spill out onto the viewer. It’s impossible to remain passive and calm while looking at Massacre of the Innocents.

Massacre of the Innocents by Sir Peter Paul Rubens c. 1611- 12 oil on canvas, 182 x 142 cm

The Massacre of the Innocents now hangs as the pièce de résistance  in the Art Gallery of Ontario, to whom it was donated by Kenneth Thomson; a generous gift to the people of Toronto. After its initial time hanging in the National Gallery, (side by side once again with the painting that preceded it, Samson and Delilah) it was sent to its permanent home in Toronto in 2008. I wished I had seen it while it was in London…

Provenance and Misattribution

The Massacre of the innocents was the first of two works on the biblical subject painted by Rubens, commencing in 1611 just three years after his return to Antwerp from an eight year stint in Renaissance Italy.

Alongside Rubens’ earlier masterpiece, Samson and Delilah, the Forchondt Brothers sold the works to a patron of the arts and an avid Rubens collector, Hans-Adam, the Prince of Liechtenstein in around 1700. The paintings remained in the Liechtenstein family collection for two centuries, and at one point were hung together in the Garden Palace in Vienna.

The first misattribution occurred in 1767, when the Massacre of the Innocents was categorised by Vincenzio Fanti as a Franciscus de Neve (II) and the second mistake happened in 1780 when it was catalogued as being by Jan van den Hoecke, one of Rubens’ assistants. The painting was subsequently sold to an Austrian family in 1920, and then loaned in 1923 to Reichersberg Abbey, a monastery of Augustinian canons in northern Austria.

When the Massacre of the Innocents came up for sale it was brought to the attention of Sotheby’s and the National Gallery in London where David Jaffé helped to identify the work as a Rubens.

He compared it with Samson and Delilah (already hanging in the National Gallery) and recognised the artist’s distinctive style and artistic ‘handwriting’ immediately.

Samson and Delilah by Peter Paul Rubens c. 1609 – 10

It strikes me as more than co-incidence that these two works by Rubens have crossed paths multiple times throughout their history!

Some statistics:

Once the Massacre of the Innocents had been attributed to an Old Master its perceived value increased exponentially.  It was the most expensive painting ever sold in the UK and Europe when  the hammer crashed down with the winning bid at a thrilling Sotheby’s auction in 2002.

The purchaser was the Canadian billionaire and art enthusiast Kenneth Thomson, who stumped up the eye-watering amount of £49.5 million; a world record for an Old Master. It’s in the top ten of the world’s most expensive paintings. No painting has reached more at auction in the UK and Europe to this day.

On 1st March 2017, Gustav Klimt’s ‘Bauerngarten’ painting was sold by Sotheby’s in London for a record price of £47,971,250 ($59,321,248), making it the second highest painting in British and European history after Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents.

Bauerngarten by Gustav Klimt

However, if one includes sculptures as works of art, they were both eclipsed in 2010 when Alberto Giacometti’s life size Walking Man was sold for £65 million by Sotheby’s.

Previous to the sale of Massacre of the Innocents only two other paintings fetched more at auction: Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet at $82.5 million in 1990 and Renoir’s Au Moulin de la Galette, which fetched $78.1 million in the same year, both in New York.

Anti-war sentiments:

Rubens grew up in the aftermath of violence and war, as a protestant led rebellion was crushed when his home city of Antwerp was laid to waste by the Spanish on 4th November 1576 during the Eighty Years War. This brilliant article by Jonathon Jones in The Guardian gives an insight into the life and times of Peter Paul Rubens and his social commentary on violence and war via his art, and in particular, his epic painting of the Massacre of the Innocents.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” ~ Elie Wiesel

The genius of the Massacre of the Innocents

When you get over the sheer revulsion of the subject matter – it’s not easy to look at infants being slaughtered, or the anguish on mothers’ faces as they desperately try to save their sons from the cruel attack of Herod’s soldiers – you can appreciate the skill of Rubens in creating a scene of pure drama, of the wretched bodies trapped in time, in their epic struggle for survival.

The impressive blend of shades of light and dark epitomise the influence of Caravaggio imbued from his travels in Italy.

Massacre of the Innocents by Sir Peter Paul Rubens c. 1611- 12 oil on canvas, 182 x 142 cm

The luminous and deathly grey skin tones, the rippling muscles, the terror on the faces, the contortion of bodies in a confined space make for a powerful painting. It’s not glorifying violence, it’s condemning it.  Rubens fought against warmongering with his paint brush, (it’s not just the pen that is mightier than the sword).

My eyes are drawn to the central figure, the young, fair haired mother with her back turned to us and being pushed downwards by an older woman about to be run-through by a soldier. She is grasping her baby in her left hand, shielding him beneath her fleshy, alabaster shoulder, whilst her right hand reaches up to claw and gouge the face of the soldier who is grabbing at her son’s loin cloth. The silky, deep crimson skirt has a sombre sheen, as if it is meant to represent their spilled blood.

Above and behind them, orange streaks across the sky and a ruined, classical city provide the back drop for one of art and history’s unspeakable deeds. Rubens has a way of making spectators become involved in his paintings, his visual storytelling.

David Jaffé on The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens:

Perhaps the outrage evoked by this 406 year old painting should be seared onto the minds and hearts of politicians all over the world.  Innocents are still being massacred and exploited in one way or another. Maybe that will never change; human nature has shown us repeatedly that we are slow to learn from the lessons of history.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ~ Eli Wiesel

Peter Paul Rubens (28 June 1577 – 30 May 1640)

Born as one of three children to Jan Rubens and Maria Pypelincks, Rubens was well educated as a humanist scholar, familiar with Latin and classical literature. He remained a devout Roman Catholic throughout his life. He began painting at age 14, and studied under two leading late Mannerist artists of the time, Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen.

Peter Paul Rubens – self portrait c. 1623

Sir Peter Paul Rubens was not only a prodigious painter (with around 1400 works of art to his name), but a scholar, diplomat and businessman. He was knighted by both Philip IV of Spain and Charles 1 of England.

His works were mostly religious and historical in subject; usually bold, ebullient and colourful, with a classical aesthetic for muscular, full-figured human anatomy and reverence to a more natural, realistic way of portraying people, places and scripture, that defined Flemish Baroque art.

The artist and his first wife, Isabella Brandt – The Honeysuckle Bower by Peter Paul Rubens c. 1609

During his years of study in Italy, Rubens drew many statues and sculptures from antiquity and learnt the techniques of High Renaissance painters from Venice such as Giorgione and in particular, Titian, who he revered especially for his use of colour; as well as the towering figures of Raphael, da Vinci and Michelangelo in Rome.

He also embraced the edgier Baroque artists such as Carracci and Caravaggio and reflected each of their styles in his unique body of work as he became established in his own right in Antwerp. He fused these iconic influences into his own unique perspective, and is probably considered to be the greatest painter of the Dutch Masters.

I’ll sign off with a short documentary by Andrew Graham Dixon which gives a fascinating insight into the genius of this extraordinary man:

“My talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size… has ever surpassed my courage.” ~ Peter Paul Rubens

Simply the Breast

Recent controversy over mothers breastfeeding in public in certain US states has brought the #FreeTheNipple movement to my attention .  It’s about time…

Everybody’s Gotta Eat:

It made me reflect on my own experiences with nursing my four babies. There is much science to back-up the health benefits to mother and child of breastfeeding one’s infant – I won’t go into that here. Suffice to say, my choice was to do the best I could to nourish my little ones. I’m not judgemental about mothers who don’t, or who have problems trying, each of has our own unique experiences and circumstances. But what I do find hard to stomach is the intolerance of others towards mothers who are committed to the long term health of their children. That, to me, is unacceptable. Nursing mothers should be protected by law.

funny breastfeeding picTo effectively be a prisoner in your own home because you are fearful of what others might think is a sad state of affairs. I remember I didn’t venture out after the birth of my first son until I was ultra-confident and we had established a comfortable routine of feeding. Even then I tried to avoid lactating in public. But hey, you have to buy food and other provisions, visit other new mums and attend social engagements, so at some point it has to be done when you’re out and about.

I’ve had to endure sneaky feeds in the car, in the toilet, at the back of restaurants, in friend’s homes etc.  When I had my second son I was more self-assured about feeding, but despite our success at it, and the beautiful bond I had formed with him, I only managed to breastfeed him for 3 months because I had to return to work and it was just too difficult to be expressing milk in an office environment. I couldn’t get on with it at home, let alone anywhere else. Some of my mates would fill whole bottles, compared to my measly few ounces. Somehow the attachment of a machine made me feel a bit too much like Gertrude to really ‘let go’. I had a real guilt complex about that for ages. Luckily Wills seems none the worse for the fact that he was fed for the shortest amount of time of all my offspring.

I remember going to a wedding reception when Wills was only about a month old, and he was voraciously hungry all the time. My let down reflex was so powerful that I didn’t even need to be in the same room with him, I would just leak milk when that strong tingling feeling came over me. It’s time for a feed.  I only had to get caught out once to invest in a ton of breast pads.

Breastfeeding uncoveredNone of us are blatant exhibitionists who can’t wait to show of our new, non-surgically enlarged mammaries: we just have a biological need to feed our babies when they need feeding. There’s nothing more stressful than being in the middle of a food shop only to have your wee bairn exercise his lungs to the extent that the whole store has to cover their ears. It’s very distressing. There’s nothing more natural and easy than being able to attach them to your body, which doesn’t need sterilising or heating to the perfect temperature and has all the exact nutrients your baby needs.

Given the choice many of us would rather feed in private. I would even retreat to the bedroom in my own home if we had visitors, but sometimes it’s unavoidable in public. It’s important for mums to retain some semblance of a normal life, other than being purely a feeding and nappy changing machine in those early months. When I had my girls I used to love going to John Lewis because they had designated comfortable feeding areas that were not a toilet. If only all major retailers had the same ethos and caring attitude towards their customers.

There has been so much education for new mums, and many midwives will help you to get the technique right so that you don’t feel like your nipple has been plugged into the national grid. There are breastfeeding clinics and organisations such as the NCT that do wonderful work all-round for mothers.

Reading about some of the negative experiences of other lactating mums I feel the education really needs to be aimed at the general public. I think most people are tolerant if the mother is fairly discreet in the UK, and companies like Mamaway and Jojo Maman Bebe do stylish nursing tops that make it easier to feed with minimal flesh exposure. But looking to the US, I do feel they are un-necessarily prudish in their outlook. If a woman happens to flash a nipple while trying to get her baby to latch on (and sometimes, if they are really agitated it can take a few goes to get them on right, even for a seasoned pro), to then be liable for arrest because she is ‘exposing’ herself is just beyond the pale. It’s a ticking time bomb. If mums feel isolated and unwelcome  in society in those early months that’s another reason not to breastfeed. A generation down the line there could be all sorts of health issues. Attitudes need to change – fast.

Why should keeping a helpless baby alive stimulate so much prejudice, annoyance and downright scorn?

There is something inherently sick in a society where violent films rake in millions at the box office, where graphic scenes of murder and killing are celebrated, but the sight of a mother doing the right thing by feeding her baby who is in need of sustenance can cause offence. Perhaps the mothers of those individuals should not have bothered with them!

Many first time mums are coping with either some, or all of these symptoms: sore bodies, sore nipples, lack of sleep, lack of confidence, post natal depression, loss of freedom, fear about their abilities as a mother…

The last thing they need is to suffer the accusing stares of ignorant people, and worse, the interruption of a feed by someone asking her to stop or leave when her baby is latched on.


Artemisia Gentileschi – Madonna and baby Jesus (1609)

Breastfeeding has been celebrated in classical, Baroque and Renaissance art, with beautiful paintings from the likes of Peter Paul Rubens, Giovanni Bottrafaffio, Botticelli, Joos Van Cleve, Leonardo da Vinci and Artemisia Gentileschi to more recent artists such as Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Paul Cezanne, Camille Cortot and Mary Cassatt.

Here is a link to a blog on the Facebook issue (but also mentions the prolific amount of Renaissance art on the subject).

breastfeedingI’ve always said that mothers are the ultimate executives. Instead of raising profits we are raising humanity. Let us do that with some humanity! Don’t make us feel awkward or embarrassed about it. We come in for criticism about so many things, either for working too many hours, or for being a stay-at-home mum, or for not breastfeeding, and it is totally unfair. Juggling a career and raising children is challenging, and most of us feel we are not doing enough in either area.  But I think the ‘having it all’ debate is worthy of a separate post.

Every woman must do what she thinks is best for her young one, and someone’s aversion to seeing her God-given assets being used in the manner that God intended –  for the nurturing of her baby, is just not her problem!

I applaud The Guardian for this article written a year ago.

It’s not all bad, some companies are forward thinking, I remember reading about a Japanese firm that allows its new mum employees take their babies to work and feed them on the premises. But that is the exception rather than the rule.

With diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other diseases on the rise and with the NHS and GP’s constantly under so much pressure, isn’t it a worthwhile goal to prevent illness?

You can’t beat a mother’s milk, hence my twisted take on Tina Turner – Simply the Breast!

Useful links: