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Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569)

Massacre of the Innocents 1565-7

Oil on panel | 109.2 x 158.1 cm | RCIN 405787

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According to St Matthew’s Gospel, after hearing from the wise men of the birth of the King of the Jews, King Herod ordered that all children in Bethlehem under the age of two should be murdered. Bruegel set the story as a contemporary Netherlandish atrocity so that the soldiers wear the distinctive clothing of the Spanish army and their German mercenaries. 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 was one of the greatest artists in sixteenth-century Northern Europe. The Massacre of the Innocents dates from the last four years of his career when Bruegel had moved from Antwerp to Brussels and was producing his most important paintings. His Massacre of the Innocents was a popular image, repeated numerous times, mainly by his son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Shortly after its creation 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. There are a few instances where infants have been left, for example at left side of the scene. Evidence of them can be seen underneath the over-painted areas throughout the painting with infra-red reflectography.