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The Art of Monarchy

A collaboration with BBC Radio 4 to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569)

Massacre of the Innocents c.1565-67

Oil on panel | 109.2 x 158.1 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 405787

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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 should be murdered. Bruegel set the story as a contemporary Flemish atrocity so that the soldiers wear the distinctive clothing of the Spanish army and their German mercenaries. This thinly-veiled religious scene would have resonated deeply with contemporary viewers. The primary purpose of the subject is to prescribe a moral judgement on Phillip II of Spain, whose brutality must be abhorred, like that of his Biblical counterpart. At a time when monarchs were frequently considered ‘God’s Anointed’, this was an unequivocal challenge to the religious integrity of the Spanish king.