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.
It was a hellish night for the town of Bethlehem. Screams and wails, clinging swords and angry roars invaded the air. The absolute horror of the event is conveyed by Ruben in a realistically unnerving way. The beastly soldiers slay the babies while the fierce mothers do all that they can to protect and save them. The soldiers turn into savages as they tear at women’s faces, pull their braids and smash and crush the newly born infants.
The gruesome plight is best seen expressed through the figures entrapped in the center. We are at once drawn to the woman in a blood red dress. With her right hand she holds on to her almost stifling baby while with her left hand she vehemently claws the face of the inhuman soldier who grabs at her son’s loin cloth. Enticed in her struggle she is pushed down by the weight of an older woman who is about to be attacked by the sword.
The older woman defends herself with all her might. She pushes away her death weapon with bleeding hands and bites the barbarous fingers of the ferocious soldier. The three women dressed in white, green and red recall the three principal Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. At the heart of the painting is the predicament of being trapped. This is clearly witnessed by the two women in the background attempting to flee with their babies through the gateway. However their hopes are met with charging spears and hearkening death.
The most treacherous scene however is the one to our right. As the innocent is flung up into the air it causes one to cringe at the imminent hurling and the heart rippling death. A young girl kneels before the soldier, pleading, hoping to catch her beloved. One can almost sense the disastrously breaking pain experienced by the mother who holds her head in despair while in the other hand she holds the pale limb corpse of her son. Similar carcasses are strewn across the square.
A Corinth stone pillar at the side bears the stinking marks of the innocent blood and the purity of the white loins. It serves as an indication of the flagellation pillar where Christ would be scourged and the spotless victim killed.
Rubens vibrating painting draws us to live the narrative. He lets us experience the brooding, the desperation, the pain, the destruction, the suffocation of deplorable bodies trapped in time and space in the struggle for survival. Ruben uses his paint brush as a weapon. It is his clear outcry against the atrocities caused by injustice, war and violence.
The Christmas story of the Massacre of the Innocents is written by swords dipped in innocent blood, the blood of the earliest martyrs of the Catholic Church who offered their life in sacrifice for Christ. A sacrifice that consummated with Christ Himself whose innocent blood was shed on the cross for the salvation of mankind!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon, Mumbai
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