Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting

While in London we visited the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace to see this, the first exhibition ever mounted of Flemish paintings in the Royal Collection. It brings together 51 works from the 15th to 17th centuries, including masterpieces by Hans Memling, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Jan Brueghel, Van Dyck and Rubens.

By the 1550s the Netherlands enjoyed a level of wealth that remained unmatched in the West for centuries. The Eighty Years War with Spain, from 1568 to 1648, all but destroyed the region’s infrastructure and creative industries. The paintings in the exhibition were produced in the Southern (Spanish-ruled) Netherlands during this period of extraordinary turbulence and its immediate aftermath, when peace was finally restored to the region.

One of the most striking paintings on view was The Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel (top).  The exhibition guide notes that:

This extraordinary painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder belonged to the Emperor Rudolph II, who presumably ordered it to be reworked as a scene of plunder rather than massacre. Karel van Mander described it as a Massacre in 1604; it had become a ‘village plundering’ when recorded in an inventory of 1621. The flames added in the sky over the houses were cleaned off in 1941, but it was then decided to leave the more substantial (and historically significant) alterations to the figures.

Admirers of this painting have agreed that it is a unique example of multiple narrative: van Mander found much in it to look at ‘which is true to life’, ‘a whole family begging for the life of a peasant child which one of the murderous soldiers has seized in order to kill, the mothers are fainting in their grief, and there are other scenes rendered convincingly’. Joshua Reynolds, seeing another version of the composition, concluded that ‘this painter was totally ignorant of all the mechanical art of making a picture; but there is here a great quantity of thinking, a representation of a variety of distress, enough for twenty modern’ [painters].’

Bruegel’s painting requires us to read these episodes one by one. Rudolph’s visual censorship has made this more difficult, but fortunately many other versions of the composition (often by Pieter Brueghel the Younger) record the original appearance. 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. His presence reminds us of the Holy Family who have escaped. In the left background a soldier urinates against a wall, a ‘true-to-life touch’ reminiscent of the Old Testament description of him ‘that pisseth against the wall’ (I Samuel 25: 22; 2 Kings 9: 8), which seems to mean no more than ‘every mother’s son’. The troop of armoured knights is led by a man, whose features have been altered. In other versions he has the distinctive drooping eyes and long beard of the Duke of Alva. It is impossible to establish whether these features lie underneath the alterations here. The standard held by one of these soldiers displayed (before it was painted over) five gold crosses on a white ground – the arms of Jerusalem. This is obviously appropriate for the biblical story, but also for its modern adaptation as Philip II of Spain was also styled king of Jerusalem.

A soldier herds women into a house at the extreme left, presumably in order to keep them out of the way; 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 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, handsome and elegantly dressed herald, who finds (to his obvious regret) that he is unable to help. This is a representative of the Roman Empire – the empire of Augustus that failed to stop Herod and the Holy Roman Empire of Maximilian II who failed to stop Alva. The Habsburg eagle originally painted on his tabard was altered by Maximilian’s successor, Rudolph II.

At the extreme right a sergeant in red tunic shouts up at the shuttered windows of an inn (presumably telling them to open up). The inn sign is inscribed: ‘This is the Star’ (Dit is inde ster) and illustrated the Star of Bethlehem (before this part was altered). This is another ‘true-to-life touch’: there was a house in the Kipdorp in Antwerp at this time called De Sterre van Bethleem. Nobody answers the sergeant and so soldiers are forcing entry: 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. A bloodhound (presumably trained to detect male babies) is handled by a soldier of unpleasantly canine physiognomy. Two generations of a family grieve for a baby about to be stabbed (changed to a calf). Two mounted sergeants in red coats superintend this operation in spite of the kneeling man begging them to countermand the order. 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.

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One thought on “Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting

  1. Great article and thanks for sharing the exhibition guide notes. This is a very striking winter scene with strong color contrast between reds and bluish greens. Again, thanks for sharing those notes as it makes me understand this great painting more.

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