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“Massacre of the Innocents” by Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens Massacre of the Innocents

“Massacre of the Innocents” by Peter Paul Rubens

“Massacre of the Innocents” by Peter Paul Rubens depicts an episode from the biblical Massacre in Bethlehem, as told in the Gospel of Matthew. According to the Gospel, Herod the Great, the Roman appointed King of the Jews, ordered the execution of all male children two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. He ordered this brutal act to protect himself from the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi.

In Matthew’s account, the Magi from the east go to Judea in search of the newborn king of the Jews, having “seen his star in the east.” King Herod directs them to Bethlehem and asks them to let him know who this king is when they find him. They see Jesus and honor him, but an angel tells them not to alert Herod, and they return home by another way.

This biblical account of infanticide by Herod was seen as the fulfillment of the words of Jeremiah, the prophet, who said:

“A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because her children are no more.”

The theme of the “Massacre of the Innocents” has provided many artists with the opportunity to compose depictions of mass violent action. The topic was revived in the more significant works of the Renaissance and later periods, as the horrific subject matter provided a comparison of these ancient brutalities with more recent massacres during the period of religious wars.

Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish artist who is considered the most influential artist of the Flemish Baroque tradition. Rubens specialized in making altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and history paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects. His compositions referenced classical and Christian history and emphasized movement, color, and sensuality.

Herod the Great

Herod (74 BCE – 4 BCE) was a Roman client king of Judea with a legacy that has polarized opinion. He is known for his colossal building projects throughout Judea, including his renovation of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the expansion of the Temple Mount and the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima.

Herod also appears in the Gospel of Matthew as the ruler who orders the Massacre of the Innocents at the time of the birth of Jesus. However, a majority of Herod biographers do not believe this event to have occurred.

Herod’s reign polarizes opinion, some viewing his legacy as evidence of success, and some as a reminder of his tyrannical rule. After Herod’s death, the Romans divided his kingdom among three of his sons and his sister.

Massacre of the Innocents

  • Title:                   Massacre of the Innocents
  • Artist:                 Peter Paul Rubens
  • Year:                  1612
  • Medium:            oil on oak
  • Dimensions:       H: 142 cm (55.9 in); W: 182 cm (71.6 in)
  • Type:                  Biblical Art
  • Museum:           Art Gallery of Ontario

Peter Paul Rubens

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“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”
– Matthew 2:16-18

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Photo Credit: 1) Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons