Sunday, 13 January 2013

Massacre of the Innocents 1565


Image scanned via the Sunday Times - click to enlarge
Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This painting belongs to the Royal Collection and is currently in an exhibition called: The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein which is being held in the Queen's Gallery, London.
There is something rather strange about both the painting and its title. Looking closely at it there are very few signs of the Massacre of the Innocents.
According to 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.
Painted by Bruegel in 1565, it originally depicted one of the Bible's darkest moments.
Look closely at the painting and you will not find any innocents being massacred. Where have the dead babies gone? Where is the blood, the viscera, the gore? It is all hidden under the delightfully painted snow. Following its completion the painting was bought by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and it was Rudolf who decided that the events depicted were too ghastly for him, and too easily mistaken for actual events in his empire. So he had the innocents painted out. Following the removal of the babies the painting was acquired by the English monarch, King Charles II, and it has remained in the Royal Collection ever since. In 1621 the painting was renamed A Village Plundering. The old women on the left crying over some loaves of bread in the snow? Those loaves were originally dead babies. See the calf by the barrel in the foreground, having its throat slit? That was originally a baby.  The wild boar being lanced just below the group of mounted soldiers? That was a baby too. Every bundle carried by every wailing mother was originally a baby. The swan that a soldier is carrying by the neck, to the left of centre - that was a baby. You can view a video from the BBC of Christopher Lloyd talking about The Massacre of the Innocents here
Apart from snow paintings done by the Bruegel family, have you ever considered how few snow paintings there are?
Britain's finest landscape painters - Constable and Gainsborough - neither of them painted a snow scene. Turner, however, did paint and sketch in the Alps using his paper to be the snow as with Japanese woodcuts, and he also painted a "Snow Storm". Poussin never painted snow nor did Claude, Rubens, Rembrandt or Velazquez. There is no snow in a Canaletto, no medieval snow, no gothic snow, no renaissance snow, no snow in all the years of rococo. The entire enlightenment was enlightened enough to avoid it. Why? Technically, painting snow is notoriously challenging. 
The best and most determined painters of snow were the impressionists who understood the complex colour issues that are involved in creating it. 
For me the most accomplished painter of snow is Camille Pissarro. I also admire the more contemporary snow paintings of Welsh painter Kyffin Williams 1918 - 2006. One or two commenters have mentioned the Canadian Group of Seven and their snow paintings. They are a group that I also admire, and I have now included a painting by Tom Thomson of the Group of Seven.
Camille Pissarro - road to Versailles, Louveciennes, near Paris  (note the clever artists touch of a small splash of red in the middle of the painting) via wikipedia
Camille Pissarro - Foxhill, Upper Norwood, south east London via BBC paintings
Kyffin Williams - The gathering - Farmers on Glyder - the sixth highest mountain in Wales via BBC paintings
Tryfan No. 2 - a mountain in the Ogwen Valley, Snowdonia, Wales via BBC paintings
Tom Thomson, one of the Canadian Group of Seven 
via wikipedia
Some information used courtesy Waldemar Januszczak, Art Critic, after an article in the Sunday Times
Turner update thanks to Celia Hart

52 comments:

  1. Hello Rosemary, Interesting observation about lack of snow in old paintings, although I'm not sure that lack of skill was the reason. A lot of early painters were located in warmer climates, or painted biblical scenes where snow obviously did not belong, and perhaps this set a standard.

    You certainly are correct about the ability of those later painters to capture the impressions of snow, and I am especially glad you introduced us to Kyffin Williams' work.

    I would also like to add the Japanese Ukiyo painters whose work often features the effects of snow, including falling snow, snow on branches, and the irregular blanketing of snow on the landscape.
    --Road to Parnassus

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    1. Dear Jim - I should have mentioned the Japanese wood block works as they do show some wonderful snow effects.
      It is a debatable point regarding snow in paintings which I wished to throw into the pot!!! Thanks for your observations.
      Glad you enjoyed being introduced to Kyffin Williams - I once had an opportunity to buy one of his paintings which I pondered over, and now regret.

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  2. The film of the Massacre is fascinating, Rosemary. I saw this painting at the Queen's Gallery years ago, and have always been a bit puzzled by it. Now you have not only explained it, but I have seen the X-rays too. Thank you for sharing it with us.
    I love a dramatic snow painting, although as you say, they are a bit rare. My 2013 calender above my desk features the Canadian Group of Seven, including a few ice and snow paintings.
    Great post!

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    1. Dear Patricia - glad that you found the explanation interesting - unfortunately the screen is rather small but looked at carefully you can just make out the wording and see the images changes.
      I love the paintings of the Group of Seven, and was introduced to them by my brother and sister-in-law who live in Toronto. When you have visited Canada have you visited the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The gallery is in Kleinburg about an hours drive from Toronto. The McMichaels were keen collectors of the Group of Seven and it is well worth a visit.
      I personally think that after Bruegel, snow paintings in general did not start to appear in any quantity until the late 19th early 20th century, and your snow paintings from the Group of Seven slot in there comfortably.

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    2. Dear Rosemary, Thank you for the McMichael recommendation; I have made a special note of it. We might be lucky and go there one day. Our daughter lives in Ottawa, and of course I have seen the Group of Seven works there, and in Toronto in years gone by. I love them too!

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    3. Hope you have the chance to visit. It is alone out in the countryside and is built like a wonderful wooden lodge with panoramic views from the verandah.

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  3. I once again learnt something today. I did not know of the story about the infant babies in this painting of Bruegel the elder.
    I have two beautiful copies of Bruegel the son's work. Mr. M and myself bought in Madrid on one of our visits to the El Prado.
    We also also bought a very well known painting of Goya's "The Snow Storm".. maybe you have not seen that.. Its hung in the main lounge at Mr. M's..The old farmhouse.
    It shows how vein the kings of that period were.. so as not to upset himself.. and for the people to think him great..He had Bruegel paint over it with snow.
    I liked the work of Camille Pissaro.
    Very interesting indeed Rosemary..
    enjoyed this post.. given me something to research.
    wishing you a wonderful Sunday.
    val

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    1. Dear Val - well done for giving us another snow painting from the earlier period. I realise that there were some, but not in any great quantity. the Goya one,I know, is very dramatic with people hugged together under their cloaks from the storm. Glad you enjoyed the post Val, and hope that you were able to access the little video overview OK.

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    2. yes, i did watch the video.. its amazing and sad at the same time to see all those little babies.
      unbelievable how that was done ..

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    3. That is good to know that it is working alright - thanks for letting me know Val.

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  4. FROM FLOWERSANDHOME
    How appropriate, we had snow last night. Finally winter has arrived and I have to say, even if there's still no sun and no blue sky, it already feels much better than the 'in between seasons' weather we had been having for more than a month. Any Breughel painting can be recognized from afar, can't it? With all the little figures in the typical landscape. You can keep looking and find so many details. Never heard of this one and the story behind it though. Thanks for sharing Rosemary!
    Bye,
    Marian

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    1. Dear Marian - the comment above is yours, I have copied and pasted it from your email because it got lost somewhere within Blogger.
      I would like some snow too, but only so that I can photograph it, and then I would want it to go on its way.
      You are right Bruegel paintings are so recognisable. They have lovely detail within them, and the figures often have a comic like character to them.

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  5. This is so informative. I've viewed copies of this painting before but was puzzled by some of the scenes. Your explanation explains it all. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thank you very much - I am so pleased that you enjoyed the explanation about the painting.

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  6. Hello Rosemary:
    Gosh, Rosemary, how fascinating all of this is. We have been most intrigued by your explanations and the short film as this is all entirely new to us.

    Pissarro has long been a favourite of ours and there was a wonderful exhibition of Impressionist work in Vienna a couple of years ago which featured many of his works.Like you, we find the ways in which colours are applied and mixed to create 'snow' is beguiling. What wonderful examples you have shown here!

    We have the real white stuff at the moment here in Budapest!!!

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    1. Hello Jane and Lance - thank you both for your extremely generous comments, I am pleased that you enjoyed the explanation of the painting, and seeing Pissarro's snow paintings. The first one was painted very near to where my eldest son and family lived when they were in Paris.
      We were promised snow this weekend, but it has not arrived. Lucky you, I would have liked to photograph some, but then sent it away again!!!

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  7. What a wonderful post, Rosemary! I have always had a soft spot for Bruegel. I have a particular fondness for the details of everyday life expressed by Northern European Renaissance. How wonderful to put this painting into historical context. Don't you find that the older one gets the closer a connection one feels with The Past?

    I love snow too and it might be of interest to you to pop over to the artist Celia Hart's blog 'Purple Podded Peas' to see her post about a Japanese woodcuts exhibition in Cambridge on the theme of snow.

    See you soon,

    Stephanie

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    1. Dear Stephanie - I do agree with you. I also find myself wanting to know more about our history and also that of the places where we visit. When we visited Aachen in Germany last year and discovered that it was the centre of Charlemagne's kingdom, he went from being almost a legendary figure to me to someone who was real. This was especially so when we visited his coronation church, Aachen Cathedral.
      Thank you for the introduction to Celia Hart's blog which I enjoyed, and have now signed up to follow her. Would you believe I collect pea pods and have silver ones, bronze ones, ceramic ones, and embroidered ones.

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  8. Hello Rosemary and thank you for following Stephanie's tip to pop over to PPPs.
    This is a really interesting post, I didn't appreciate the background to the Bruegel painting, neither was I familiar with the work of Kyffin Williams - which is wonderful.

    However, Turner did paint and sketch in the Alps so there are some beautiful snow scenes by him in watercolour, such as:
    http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-the-alps-the-alps-at-daybreak-for-rogerss-poems-d27701
    as with Japanese woodcuts he allowed the paper to be the snow.
    And, of course Turner did paint a 'Snow Storm'!
    http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-snow-storm-steam-boat-off-a-harbours-mouth-n00530





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    1. Thank you for your input Celia which I have now added to the post and given credit to yourself. Parnassus also mentioned the work of the Japanese Ukiyo painters so all of these useful comments help to give a more rounded picture.

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  9. Dear Rosemary,

    The story behind the painting of the Innocents is fascinating, all the more for Rudolf's concern or self-consciousness about it. Or perhaps he simply didn't want to look at slaughtered children. I remember reading about Andrew Mellon donating his personal collection to form the National Gallery of Art. Curators quickly realized that the collection had no representations of the crucifixion because, of course, Mellon had not wanted to look up from the dinner table to see that!

    I've been pondering the lack of snowscapes in early paintings, and at least regarding the Renaissance images, I think I have a partial answer. So many of those paintings were commissioned by the church, nobility or wealthy merchants to not only commemorate religious events, but to also be a testament to their own wealth. And that wealth would have been revealed by using expensive pigments with as much color as possible.

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    1. Dear Mark - that seems a very valid idea re: Renaissance paintings. The wealthy patrons were very intent on having themselves included in many of the paintings, and as you mention the use of very expensive pigments. I know that their Burnt Sienna, Terre Verte, Lapis Lazuli etc were expensive. The high value was the reason that the Madonna was normally dressed in blue or occasionally red.

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  10. Hello Rosemary,
    Thank you for introducing me to some more paintings and artists. The story and video of the painting of the Massacre of the Innocents was so interesting. I think I prefer the revised painting the original sounds so grotesque. I love the paintings of Pissaro.
    Sarah x

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    1. Hello Sarah - glad you found the video and explanation of the painting of interest. The little video is quite revealing, it must have been a gory painting originally.
      I think that Pissarro's paintings really do show how to paint snow and on close inspection reveal the many different colours he used.

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  11. What an article, I had this puzzle from Breughel. I played a lot with it as a kid.

    Greetings,
    Filip

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    1. You know the painting well then Filip.

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  12. Such an interesting post. I watched the video - what a gruesome painting it must have once been - but what a terrible thing it was to have it painted over.

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    1. It is interesting to be able to see the before and after, and of course the painting originally did not have any snow.

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  13. Dear Rosemary,very interesting post!I dont now this artist,either about this painting,i'm fond of Rembrandt and Monne paintings!Wishing you a lovely week!
    Dimi..

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    1. I like Rembrandt and Monet too, and was lucky enough to visit Monet's wonderful garden in France.

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  14. I learnt something new about the Massacre of the Innocents painting from you today, The painting looks better this way with the babies covered in snow. It leaves some mystery to it. If you like Winter landscapes paintings, the Canadian Group of Seven Winter landscapes are wonderful. I only realized that they painted so many when we visited the Art Gallery of Ontario here in Toronto.

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    1. Thanks Pamela - I am familiar with the Group of Seven and love their paintings. I have had a conversation about them with Patricia (2nd commenter down). I wonder if you have visited the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg. If you have not I would recommend that you try and go. The McMichael's were avid collectors of the Group of Seven, and built the wooden lodge style art gallery to house them.

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  15. Hello, Dear! That is amazing...(And I totally agree with you about the portrait of Kate!) I've come to your blog from the blog of one of my sweet commenters ~ you know how that goes ~ :) ~ Now following you!
    So nice to "meet" you!
    Hugs,
    Anne

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    1. Hello Anne and thank you for your visit. The portrait of Kate seems to have had a wholehearted thumbs down.

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  16. What a chilling tale Rosemary, I will never look at Massacre of the Innocents the same way again now that I know what is hidden underneath the snow. I wouldn't be surprised that Canadians would masterfully paint snow since we spend so much time covered with the lovely white stuff :)

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    1. Dear Rosemary - a couple of commenters mentioned the Canadian Group of Seven so thought I would add one of their paintings. I was introduced to them several years ago when visiting Canada by my brother and his wife who live in Toronto. They have the white stuff in parts of Britain, but no signs of here yet.

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  17. Dear Rosemary, I just posted a cooment using my AOL, which disappeared! So... here I go again, using Google Chrome!

    I want to thank you for a very interesting and intelligent post. I was shocked and quite horrified at the sight of the little lifeless bodies and filled with a sense of fear and loss. Very strange!

    I watched the little clip with my husband and he felt just the same as I did. How sad!

    rosemary, I would like to thank you foe your very interesting posts. This one, in particular, was so well researched! A good example of how Shakespeare's concept of "Appearance and Reality."

    The Pissarro paintings I absolutely love: so peaceful and beautiful, they made me feel happier!

    Still snowy here in Broadland!

    CIAO!

    ANNA

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  18. Dear Anna - What a very generous comment - thank you very much, I am pleased that you enjoyed reading the post and found it interesting.
    We have no snow at all here in the West, and I would really like to have taken some snow photos of the woods nearby, but it is not to be. I was surprised to see that even Olympia has snow in Greece.
    Glad that you enjoyed the Pissarro paintings. The first one in Louveciennes, Paris was painted very near to where my eldest son and family lived for 5 years.

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    1. Rosemary... I went out today and took some (I thought) fantastic photos. When I came home, I realized that, because I was trying to keep my camera dry, under my coat,I must have changed a setting. All my pictures were blurry and slightly pink! What a shame! I really don't want to go out again, as it's still snowing.
      The two I included in my post I took in the garden, later. Never mind!

      PS: My comment was generous as the post was beautiful and I learnt something new. You put a lot of work into it and it showed. In Italia we say:" Dai a Cesare quel che è di Cesare!" CIAO!

      ANNA

      xx

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    2. Dear Anna - I am just about to visit your new post. What a shame about the photos, but you do not want to ruin your camera. Thank you again for enjoying the post, it makes the time spent doing it worthwhile. Take care♥

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  19. Hello. Just popped over from Val's blog. I've just recently been to see the Durer to Holbein Exhibition at the Queen's Gallery and loved it. Thankyou for sharing a lovely post.

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    1. Welcome Patricia - and how lovely that you have actually visited the exhibition. You would have been able to view the Bruegel picture at close quarters and enjoy all of the details. I wonder If you happened to watch the Antique Roadshow a couple of weeks ago where a lady came in with a genuine Dürer print purchased by her father?

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  20. Dear Rosemary,
    Another fascinating post! I always find it interesting to learn about the life a painting has after its completed. In this case, the story of Breugel's painting is so compellingly told by those ghostly infrared images... Thank you also for finding such beautiful snowy paintings and for calling this genre to our attention at the perfect time. Once again, you've encouraged us to contemplate works that reflect the time of year- how wonderful! Those Pissaros are stunning...
    Thank you Rosemary!
    Warm regards,
    Erika

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    1. Dear Erika - I am glad that you enjoyed the post.
      No snow for me, so I am creating a little bit of my own. The image on the video is rather small in scale but it does capture the true essence of how the painting was originally.
      The Pissarro's show snow really well, and also reveal the many different colours required to convey snow realistically.

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  21. Thank you for your very interesting art lesson! I did not know about this painting, or its history! When it comes to snow, I think there are a lot of scandinavian paintings with snow, though I do not think there are as old as Bruegel or Holbein.

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    1. Dear Lise - you are correct about Scandinavian paintings with snow, but these paintings tend to be late 19th to early 20th c, and I was thinking in terms of the medieval and renaissance periods. However, I am reminded about the snow paintings of Nikolai Astrup and Carl Larsson, both of whom I have done posts on.

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  22. Yes, I undertood that you ment medieval snow paintings, and as far as I know, there are none. May be some church art, but I have never heard about it.

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    1. You never know someone might come up with one.

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  23. Such a fascinating and informative post, Rosemary. The alterations to the Massacre of the Innocents to suit changed tastes are reminiscent of the airbrushing out of people in Soviet propaganda photos under Stalin.

    I hadn't really thought about the paucity of snow scenes in art, but you're quite right. I love the paintings by Pissarro, particularly the first one - so evocative.

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    1. I am also reminded of the photos of glamorous and beautiful girls where their thighs etc are air brushed to perfection to make us all feel inadequate.
      The first Pissarro I love too, and it was painted very near to where my eldest son and his family lived when they were in Paris.

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  24. Rosemary, I enjoyed your post! I've read the Marian's post about Peter Bruegel and found the link to yours. You're right --it's difficult to paint snow and when I was reading I learned some more artists that painted it. Do you know Russian artists who could paint snow well? I wrote my post "Winter landscape" here:
    http://northern-garden.blogspot.ru/2014/01/winter-landscape.html

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    1. Dear Nadezda - I came to visit your blog and love the painting you showed. I tried to follow you but could not find a followers button on your blog.

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