THE CHRISTMAS CANVAS: ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ by Peter Paul Rubens

 We are in the city of Antwerp in northern Belgium. It is a prosperous city of money, merchants and trade. In the 17th century, Antwerp was racked by civil war and tremendous tension between the Protestant Dutch and the Catholic crown of King Phillip II of Spain. The violent riots of the Reformation had trickled down to the Low Countries. Antwerp was sacked in 1576 wherein about 70,000 people died.

Jan Rubens was one of the many who fled the city to escape its fury. To him, in the city of Siegen, was born Peter Paul Ruben (1577). Shortly after the father’s death, the family moved back to Antwerp. Raised as a Roman Catholic, Ruben showed great interest in art. He took off to Italy for nearly a decade to imbibe the aura of the Renaissance, the Baroque and classical antiquity. He gathered a rich cultivation for art in the nursery of taste and talent.

Things worked well in his favour. Ruben’s return to Antwerp in 1609 coincided with the ‘Treaty of Antwerp’ that initiated the ‘twelve year truce’ between the warring parties. It trumpeted the entry of a Counter Reformation artist whose work persuaded, instructed, delighted and moved the people. Ruben was a painter of passion, a cultured humanist, a diplomat, an entrepreneur and one of the greatest story tellers in the history of art.

However his Christmas Canvas is not a pleasant site. It smells sinister and murder. The subject is that of the intense massacre of the innocents as ordered by King Herod who was on pins to keep his throne safe. This was after he had heard from the Magi that the prophesized newly born Messiah was to be the King of the Jews. Ruben masterfully associates this to the brutality of the social, political and religious conditions prevailing in Netherlands.

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