Ever looked closely at Bruegel the Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents? I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t. It’s a pretty famous painting, but it’s not the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. You might have seen it on a Christmas card, along with the more common Hunters in the Snow, another painting by Bruegel. And why not? It’s a snowy scene with plenty of animals. Perfect for Christmas. Until you look closer. On first inspection it looks like a raid – sundries strewn in the snow, soldiers carrying off sacks, livestock taken for slaughter. A far cry from Christmas. But look a little closer and you’ll see the signs that there’s something far more sinister at work. Hidden away in various corners of the painting are the ghostly remains of figures now painted over. You don’t have to look too closely to surmise that there’s something amiss; a lot of the animals depicted look messier than the figures surrounding them, as do the clothes and sacks. Look closer still and you’ll see shadowy feet beneath one of the sacks. Or a little hand reaching out from the huddle of poultry gathered before the mounted soldiers in the centre of the image. What you’re looking at is far more than just a raid. It’s a Biblical scene brought to life in the snowy Spanish Netherlands; that of Herod and the Hebrew children. It’s a genuine massacre of the innocents.
How did I stumble upon this? Good question. Revision is a tiresome thing and I found Bruegel’s painting on one of my desperate ‘productive procrastination’ sprees. I still can’t remember how. But it was one of those images that I just couldn’t stop staring at, and the more I looked, the more I wanted to know. Why the children? Why were they painted over? And why, when the painting was restored, were they not returned? It chilled me to the bone when I first saw one of the few uncensored images floating around, but I think it’s more poignant than the one we’re left with now, shocking though it may be. What would Goya have thought if the men of El Tres de Mayo had been painted over with cattle? Or is there a line that cannot be crossed, as far as children are concerned? Goya obviously didn’t think so. See Saturn devouring his Son. But what do I know? I’m just musing as usual.
What I think matters most of all is one of the few details that wasn’t amended. In the background, behind the Spanish soldiers, is a man crossing the frozen river with an infant in his arms. He has a sword at his belt but his stance, in tandem with that of the woman standing behind him, imply that his actions are protective, rather than nefarious. It’s the one detail that really sticks in my mind. Is he the father of the child, or a friend, trying to smuggle the child to safety? Did he succeed? Perhaps most poignant of all, is it something Bruegel saw? Tough questions. I wish I’d had more trips to art galleries when I was at school. You can lose yourself for hours in a painting like this. The more you look, the more you see.
Apologies for the heavy content of today’s musing. I’m thinking of writing a novella based on the painting, so I thought I’d share the image with you in case you’re interested. It sure piqued my interest! x