Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents

 Pieter Brugel's Massacre of the Innocents
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and the Buyer. 1565. Believed to be a self-portrait.

Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents is a powerful political work. Deemed too dangerous to be displayed multiple scenes in the work were painted over to make them more palatable. The work visually recounts the Biblical story of the children of Bethlehem being slaughtered by King Herod.  Bruegel links the story to his own countries struggle against the abusive powers of Philip II.

Who was Bruegel?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Flemish Northern Renaissance painter who lived from 1525 to 1569, dying when he was 44. Of his children, two sons also became famous painters.

Bruegel was known for his landscapes and genre paintings. In fact, he was a pioneer in genre painting, or painting the common people. He used to go about in peasant clothing so that he could get to know and observe how the common people lived, thus earning his nickname, Peasant Bruegel. He painted with an unsentimental, straight forwardness that treated his subjects with both respect and humor.

Political Background of Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents

Bruegel lived in the Netherlands during the rule of Philip II of Spain. This made the Netherlands part of the Habsburg Empire which stretched onto every known continent. When Philip was crowned King of Spain, he was also King of Portugal, King of Naples and Sicily, and due to his wife, Queen Mary Tudor, King of England and Ireland. He was additionally the Duke of Milan, and most relevant to our story he was Lord of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands.

Philip II of Spain
Hans Eworth, Portrait of Philip II of Spain and his wife Queen Mary Tudor.1558 Woburn Abbey

AND he was Catholic…very Catholic. Philip felt that he was the chief defender of the Catholic Church throughout Europe (small wonder as he ruled most of it.) His religious fervor drove him to fight heresy wherever he found it, with whatever means he had at his command, this included the infamous Spanish Inquisition. This meant he was at war with the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, while simultaneously sending his invincible Spanish Armada against Queen Elizabeth in England. Queen Elizabeth restored Protestantism to England after her sister, Mary’s (Philip’s wife) death.

The Spanish Inquisition Comes to the Netherlands

At the same time Philip began to get reports from his half-sister Margaret, that the Netherlands was in crisis. Philip had appointed Margaret as Regent in the Netherlands to rule on his behalf. The Protestant Reformation was taking hold throughout the Netherlands and Philip was being pressed to address the issue. A series of events led to a break in other conflicts and Philip decided to send 10,000 men under the Duke of Alva to address the problems.

 Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocent.
Print of the Duke of Alva presiding over the Council of Trouble, 1616

Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alva was a distinguished war veteran and a trusted ally of Philip. In the Netherland’s he became known as the Iron Duke due to his heavy-handed policies.  Although Margaret had called to Philip for aid in dealing with the Protestant problem, she found the Duke’s tactics so harsh she resigned from her role as Regent in protest.

It’s hard for us to put ourselves into a world where church and state were one and the same. Reading the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity during this era is a sober warning. As the official religion was Catholicism, anyone who converted to Protestantism committed heresy and treason. The soldiers of the Duke treated everyone as if they were traitors. Rumors of plundering and violence spread from village to village. Soldiers were quartered in homes, and the support of the troops was a financial and emotional burden.

The Council of Troubles Creates More Troubles

The Council of Troubles was established by the Duke to investigate, try and convict any Protestants or traitors. The judgments were fast and harsh. Typically handing down a death or a life sentence, the numbers of convictions were high The Council of Troubles quickly became known as the Council of Blood, providing a convenient way to deal with infidels and political enemies. Thousands were put to death, including women and children.

During the early months of the trials two noblemen were executed for protesting the Spanish Inquisition. The Netherlands had laws governing rights of individuals, and fair trials, so these two executions were seen by the Dutch as an unlawful act. Most citizens had little faith that the trials were just. The events led to the Dutch Revolt and the Eighty Year War.

Parallels to the Nativity Narrative

I’m glossing over a great deal of intrigue, complex circumstances, and interesting details to get to our painting…but I hope you have a feel for the climate in the Netherlands when Bruegel painted this work. Questions were being raised at that time which are always present in times of turmoil. I’m struck by how universal and ageless the concerns are…I suppose there really is nothing new under the sun.

  • Where do the governments right end?
  • How does religion, individual rights, and government interact?
  • What is oppression and what is justice?
  • In an oppressive government what are an individual’s responsibilities?
  • Is it a governments duty to protect the vulnerable?
  • When is war, or force, justified?

You may not have considered these questions when reading the Christmas story. Our familiarity with the story can blind us to some of the details.

The Biblical Story Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents is Based On

If you are unfamiliar with the Biblical narrative about the Massacre of the Innocents let me catch you up. When Jesus was born a star appeared in the sky, a star that Magi or Wise Men from the East saw and interpreted as a sign that an important king had been born. They journeyed to pay homage to this new king and brought him gifts.

Upon arriving to the area, they sought out the nearest king, King Herod.  Makes sense, they probably thought a new heir had been born to the current ruler. After inquiring about the birth of the one they believed would be the “King of Kings,” Herod was consumed with fear for his own position in his kingdom. Lying to the Magi, Herod said that he too wanted to come and worship.

After finding Jesus, the Magi were warned in a dream that Herod wished to kill the child. The decision was reached that they would return home another way, and never tell Herod where the child was.

As time passed, Herod realized the Magi were not going to return, so he ordered that every male child under the age of 2 in Bethlehem should be killed.

Joseph was warned in a dream to take Mary and the baby and flee to Egypt.

In extra-Biblical stories Joseph is haunted by guilt for the rest of his life over the slaughter that took place in Bethlehem. The fact that he saved his child and hadn’t warned or saved so many others was a source of shame. It’s a horrifying story, and a dramatic one that artists have painted and sculpted over and over again. Interestingly, Bruegel is not the only artist whose painting on this theme reflected the violence of the Dutch Revolt.

Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents is surprisingly non-violent

I was aware of both the Biblical story, and the situation in the Netherlands, when I first went searching for Bruegel’s painting of the Massacre of the Innocents. Here is the painting that I found.

 Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents. 1568. The British Royal Collection.

Once I found it and started examining it, I was baffled. Most artwork dealing with this topic includes horrible pictures of dead or dying children, distraught parents, cold Roman soldiers. Here I couldn’t find a single baby. Go back and look carefully at the painting; how is this the Massacre of the Innocents? There is clearly something going on with soldiers everywhere, perhaps a search, or plundering a village for supplies for the army…but not wholesale slaughter.

Well, it turns out there are more layers, literally, to this painting. Probably during the Dutch Revolt, this painting was taken and ended up in the collection of Rudolph II, the Holy Roman Emperor. Rudolph II was a Habsburg ruler, as was Philip II. All in the family. While there are some who think Rudolph II may have had other reasons for what he did, I’m going with what I feel is the most obvious.

Overpainting the Offending Details

 Pieter Bruigel's Massacre of the Innocents.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents. 1568. Kunsthistorisches Museum in Viena.

Uncomfortable with the parallels that Bruegel made between the Habsburg rule in the Netherlands and the Biblical account of the Massacre of the Innocents, Rudolph II had portions of the painting overpainted. The dead or dying babies were made into livestock, packages, and bread. The name of the painting morphed from The Massacre of the Innocents in 1604 to A Village Plundering in 1621. Not only were the babies painted over, but flames were added to one of the buildings, transforming the entire story.

There are a few ways that we know what the original painting looked like. First, if a work proved profitable the artist, or someone in his workshop would make additional copies. It is thought that there could have been up to 14 copies of this painting done by either Pieter Bruegel the Elder or his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger. There are several in museums currently.

Additionally, when the painting held by the Royal Collection was evaluated for restoration work, the overpainting was discovered. At that point a decision needed to be made, do they remove the overpainting to reveal the original, or do they keep the overpainting which was done in the early 1600’s and is now a part of the history of the work. They decided to remove the flames but leave the overpainting. With modern technology the original work can be seen and photographed by the restorers.

History Rewritten by the Victors

Somehow, having the atrocities of the massacre covered up with pictures of turkeys and goats made the injustice of the scene feel that much more obscene to me. Horrific enough that babies were murdered, but the additional crime of pretending it didn’t happen made me feel sick. History being rewritten by the victors is hardly a new concept, but this was a forceful reminder of how heinous that kind of cover up is. The innocents in this instance are victimized twice, and literally painted over so that Rudolph II could be comfortable.

In the following series of details, the paintings on the left will be the original, on the right the overpainting.

Details of Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents
Details from Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents
Details of Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents
Detail from Bruegels’s Massacre of the Innocents

There are a great many details to notice, each one disturbing.

  • A father pleading
  • A mother clinging to her child as it’s pulled away
  • A woman sitting in the snow, a dead child on her lap
  • A group of soldiers thrusting spears into a group of dying babies, as other soldiers on their horses look on.
  • Women turned way in horror and grief.
  • Buildings being searched.
  • In the bottom group, in the top right corner is a particularly disturbing image of a soldier taking away a toddler and a father looking to trade the son for his daughter.

There is a solitary figure in the top of the painting with an infant in his arms trying to flee the scene. Although, with the soldier on horseback on the bridge it doesn’t seem likely he will make his escape.

The Man In Black in Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents 

Detail from Pieter Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents
Detail from Pieter Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents.

In the third row of details, we see a man in black with a distinctive beard sitting with the soldiers. Although there is some debate, he bears a striking resemblance to the Duke himself. The soldiers hold their pike poles in a straight up position associated with Spanish troops. The flag they are flying is one sometimes used by Philip II. The garb of the soldiers is that of the Spanish troops and the mercenaries that had joined them.

Bruegel Creates Dissonance Between the Brutal Scene and Peaceful Landscape

Bruegel sets brutality and death against a peaceful winter landscape. The contrast increases the dissonance of the scene. The buildings force all of the action into the center of the street. The groupings of people create a great deal of confusion, but the constant color scheme creates unity. Bruegel has given us a picture of powerful men that have grown callous and forsaken their duty to protect the vulnerable. He’s set the Biblical narrative in his own day and circumstance and given it new life. It’s disturbing to consider how many times, in how many places artists could do the same today.

If you would like to look at Bruegel’s Census at Bethlehem, you can find it here.

For more art articles you can start here.

You can view Kelly’s videos on art on her YouTube channel.

*Note, there is debate whether Pieter Bruegel the Elder or Pieter Brueghel the Younger painted these paintings. It is thought the Elder did the original and that later copies were painted by both, or others in their workshop.

** There is some debate on the spelling of Habsburg vs Hapsburg…I’ve chosen to use the Habsburg spelling which as I understand it, is how the family spelled the name. The ‘b’ is sounded like a ‘p’ so in America the name is frequently spelled the other way.



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