Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,

In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

– Matthew 2:16-18

In the final room of the exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery – The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein – alone on one wall there hangs a masterpiece which reveals the dark side of the Renaissance: religious intolerance, war, and the imperial suppression of attempts to assert new national identities. It is Pieter Bruegel’s ‘Massacre of the Innocents’.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1565

As told in 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. In his painting, Bruegel set the story as a contemporary Flemish atrocity, with the soldiers wearing the distinctive clothing of the Spanish army and their German mercenaries.  The painting was finished in 1567, the year Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba, led 10,000 soldiers to the Spanish Netherlands.  His orders from Philip II of Spain were to suppress the Dutch Rebellion and restore Catholicism.

Bruegel used the Biblical story as an allegory in order to portray state oppression in his own time. He depicts the obliteration of a Dutch village by the troops and mercenaries of Philip II of Spain.  In the 1560s, the revolt against Catholic rule in the Netherlands and the assertion of Protestantism and national identity provoked a merciless and vicious repression from Spain. In villages such as this men, women and children would have been declared heretics and butchered as a matter of course.  The painting, with its echoes of Nazi atrocities in the shtetls of eastern Europe, the murder of several hundred Vietnamese civilians by US troops in the Vietnamese village of My Lai in 1968, or countless other examples, speaks to our own time.  As Robert L Bonn wrote in Painting Life:

To look at almost any Bruegel painting is to be transported back to life as it was known more than four centuries ago.  But that’s not all.  With Bruegel, a second deeper look invariably reveals a certain ‘something more’.  This ‘something more’ varies from painting to painting.  It may be secular or religious.  It may be a proverb, a moral, a philosophical dilemma or a social myth.  Whatever it is, I have often found it to be strikingly modern.

Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian, argues that ‘Bruegel is a historian of the horrors we know’:

Bruegel’s ‘Massacre’ is a picture whose authority everyone recognises, a chilling complement to his lovely winter landscape ‘The Hunters in the Snow’. The homeliness of the hunters’ world is overturned in the ‘Massacre’ by death battering at the door. Death was doing this regularly in Bruegel’s southern Netherlands in the late 1560s, as the beginnings of the Dutch revolt against Catholic rule provoked vicious repression. In 1565, despite the urging of local nobles for moderation, Philip II reaffirmed the death penalty for heresy among his Netherlands subjects; in 1566 there were Calvinist riots; in 1567 the Duke of Alba was sent with an army to try to crush dissent for good, resulting in one of the cruellest military campaigns in European history. […]

Bruegel is a realist – even a social realist. This is why his art appealed to 20th-century socialist and communist writers such as WH Auden and Bertolt Brecht. He takes the mad, foolish, impossible fantastic realm mapped by [Hieronymus] Bosch and demonstrates, with brutal peasant humour, that it is not so far after all from the everyday cruelties and injustices and stupidities we accept as natural. Bosch was not mad, Bruegel says – he was a prophet. You do not need to close your eyes to see monstrosities. They are all around us.

But there is another story here, too.  A decade after Bruegel completed the version of the painting in the Royal Collection, it came into the possession of the Hapsburg Emperor, Rudolph II, who ordered that the details of the massacre be painted out.  In modern terms, what we have here is a redacted document. There is, however, another version of the painting, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, which has not been censored, and which presents the massacre as Bruegel painted it, plainly displaying the bodies of dead and butchered children where the London version, bizarrely, shows cheeses, animals, and indeterminate bundles.

The slaughtered babies were painted over with details such as bundles, food and animals so that, instead of a massacre, the painting appeared to be a more general scene of plunder and despoliation of a village. The 16th century Flemish art historian  Karel van Mander described it as a ‘Massacre’ in 1604, but it had become a ‘village plundering’ when recorded in an inventory of 1621.

Especially troubling to Rudolph would be the figures on horseback in red coats: these are men of high rank, representatives of the Hapsburgs. Bruegel’s picture was an undisguised allusion to atrocities committed in Flanders under the harsh rule of the Spanish branch of his family. By having it repainted, the Emperor sought to blunt the cruelty of a picture that in its own time must have been as incendiary as Picasso’s Guernica.

It was in 1988, when the London painting was undergoing full cleaning treatment, that conservationists discovered that Bruegel’s original had been overpainted. They decided to leave the historically significant alterations to the figures, where animals and inanimate objects are painted over the details of children being slaughtered.  The overpainting is now part of the picture’s history, and adds new layers to its meaning. To one side of the painting in this exhibition, the curators have placed a panel which shows some of the details of the butchery that had been overpainted but then revealed by infrared scanning.

The shadow of murdered infants seen underneath the over-painted areas in infrared scanning.

As in a number of his other paintings such as ‘The Adoration of the Kings’ (1564, National Gallery, London), ‘The Procession to Calvary’ (1564, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), and ‘The Census at Bethlehem’ (1566, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels) Bruegel has set an event from the Bible in the contemporary setting of a Flemish village.

The painting is a multiple narrative that requires us to read each episode one by one – like a strip cartoon. 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.

In the left background a soldier urinates against a wall. A soldier herds women into a house at the extreme left; 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.

On the left, a standing woman grieves over her dead baby lying in the snow (changed to an array of hams and cheeses); a couple seem to 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 the extreme right soldiers are forcing entry to an inn: 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. Two generations of a family grieve for a baby about to be stabbed (changed to a calf). 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 at some point in the painting’s history.

The troop of armoured knights is led by a man, whose features have been altered. In the Vienna version of this painting he has the distinctive drooping eyes and long beard of the Duke of Alva. Before it was painted over, the standard held by one of these soldiers displayed five gold crosses on a white ground – the arms of Jerusalem, an emblem of Philip II of Spain.

Detail 1

On the left, a woman grieves over her dead baby lying in the snow (changed to an array of hams and cheeses).

Vienna detail 1
Detail 2

A couple beg a soldier to take their daughter rather than kill their baby son (changed to a goose or swan in the London version).

Vienna detail 6
Vienna detail 5

A huddle of villagers console or restrain a father who might otherwise attack the German mercenary in striped hose who guards a dead baby (changed to a bundle in the London version).

Detail 3

A baby (changed to a bundle) is torn by a soldier from its mother as another soldier lunges for her daughter.

Vienna detail 4
Detail 4

A family grieve for a baby about to be stabbed (changed to a calf in the London version).

Vienna detail 3
Detail 5

A group of soldiers stab with pikes at a pile of babies (changed to geese and turkeys) to ensure that all are dead.

Vienna detail 2

Jonathan Jones again, in The Guardian:

‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, in the Royal Collection. There is another version of this painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, but Her Majesty’s is the one that startled me when I first chanced on it in an exhibition. It still haunts me.

Armoured horsemen bear down on a frightened crowd of peasants in the main street of a snowbound village. A soldier is kicking at a door while another man brings a battering ram. Mothers are pleading, fathers begging. Red-coated officers supervise the slaughter.

It could be a scene from a 21st-century war. But it portrays a realistic moment in Bruegel’s own 16th-century Flanders. The painter is picturing the wars that ravaged the country in his time, wars in which the Spanish Catholic armies of the Habsburg empire tried to crush Protestant resistance.

He is the master of snow, this painter who gave us the lovely Hunters, but here he deploys that whiteness in the blankest way imaginable. The emptiness of the white covering, the deathliness of the stripped trees, the frozen ground, suggest a world betrayed and nature itself turning on the innocents.

You feel winter’s cruelty in this painting: you feel the pain of those peasants when they tried to dig into the frozen earth, their hunger when there were no birds to catch and the streams were locked with ice. And then this final assault, this murder by soldiers with no pity, no compassion. Men with snow in their hearts.

Duccio, Massacre of the Innocents, 1388
Duccio, Massacre of the Innocents, 1388

Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents had stirred the imagination of artists for centuries, as in this 14th century representation by Duccio – and in many other paintings. The massacre was turned into one of the first English dramas acted out by the Shearmen and Tailors – the guild of men who forged blades – in Coventry. The only thing remaining from the Coventry pageant is the terrible yet lovely Coventry Carol, here sung by Joan Baez:

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

In the 1980s, the Australian poet Robert Angus, after seeing Bruegel’s painting, was compelled to write this poem, ‘Massacre Of The Innocents (Bruegel 1566)’, published in Ambit poetry magazine:


Josephus has failed to notice the massacre.(The persons are few & the result negligible.)

But here – somewhere lost in the scene – Bruegel
is present.

           [Snow covers the tiles      covers the ground      deadens
the cries absorbs the blood.]

                                   The prophet Jeremy observes:
‘Voices everywhere are heard: lamentation & mourning:
Rachel bitterly weeping for her children…’

High in his tree a crow peers from his nest.

The blacksuited commander counts the bodies
(5 or 6 dead      the rest struggling    about to be dead).

Horses    noticing nothing    paw the ground

Dogs    excitedly sniffing blood    bark.

Silently the troop
patiently grouped in a block
wait for the end of the hunt           the killing.

*  *  *

Herod     no longer mocked
[another crow in another tree]
also hopes & waits.

Massacre of the Innocents uncensored
Bruegel’s ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ uncensored: the Vienna version

Bruegel is indeed the historian of the horrors we know.  Everything is present in this 16th century Guernica: the unheralded arrival of brutality and death to an unsuspecting community in a peaceful landscape.  And, beyond the horizon, the encircling  questions of identity, religion, and power.

See also


6 thoughts on “The Massacre of the Innocents (redacted)

  1. excellent, so very telling, covering and hiding past atrocities has been happening for a long time.

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