The Massacre of the Innocents, a poignant work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, serves as a chilling reflection of the political and social turmoil during the 16th century in the Netherlands. Painted between 1565 and 1567, this oil-on-oak panel masterpiece was Bruegel’s interpretation of the biblical narrative from St. Matthew’s Gospel, where King Herod, fearing the prophecy of a new king of the Jews, ordered the slaughter of all male infants under two years old in Bethlehem.
Bruegel’s rendition is set against the backdrop of the Eighty Years’ War, a period of revolt and independence in the Netherlands, and is seen as a commentary on the brutality of war. The soldiers in the painting are depicted wearing the attire of local officials who enforced public order, linking the ancient atrocity to contemporary events. This connection is further emphasized by the inclusion of the Habsburg double-headed eagle on the soldiers’ banners, drawing a parallel to the oppressive rule of Philip II of Spain and his appointed enforcer, the Duke of Alva.
The original painting underwent significant alterations when it came into the possession of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II. To make the scene less harrowing, images of slaughtered babies were painted over with bundles, food, and animals, transforming the depiction of a massacre into a general scene of plunder. Despite these changes, traces of the original infants can still be discerned beneath the overpainting.
Bruegel’s work is renowned for its intricate detail and multiple narratives, requiring viewers to piece together each episode successively. From grieving mothers to soldiers ensuring the death of the innocents, the painting is a tableau of sorrow and brutality. It is believed that Bruegel used the severe winter of 1564-65 as inspiration for the setting, depicting a snow-covered village with icicles and a frozen pond, adding to the bleakness of the scene.
The Massacre of the Innocents stands as a testament to Bruegel’s ability to blend biblical events with contemporary life, reflecting the influence of the Protestant Reformation on art. His work, while rich in fantastical elements, never strays from reality, using imagination to portray the harsh truths of his time. Bruegel’s anti-war message is conveyed through the lens of historical brutality, reminding viewers of the cyclical nature of violence and the innocent lives caught in its wake.