de jonckheere old masters

Marten van Cleve

The Massacre of the Innocents

Copper: 21,3 x 30,2 cm


The traditional portrayals of joyous dancing scenes by certain 16th century Flemish painters are replaced here by a more sombre subject. The Massacre of the Innocents, which occurred in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, has been transposed to a typical 16th century Flemish village, in the middle of winter. After learning of the birth of Christ, Herod ordered his soldiers to assassinate all boys aged two and younger. This remarkable portrayal of the massacre powerfully unfolds in an overall turbulence: desperate women attempt to flee with their children, while the dead bodies of others lie on the ground and men enter the dwellings by force. The painter brilliantly depicts the contrast between the tranquility of winter and the distress caused by the killing in this Brabant village. The darkening sky in the upper right-hand corner casts an oppressive atmosphere over the scene, further emphasised by the horizon blocked by the houses, which seems to make the women's escape impossible. In the harshness of winter, illustrated by the bare trees, the inhabitants of this village must suffer the atrocities of the soldiers amid a wave of terror.

One hypothesis suggests that this scene represents the violent acts committed by the Spanish occupying forces against the Dutch, under Philip II (1527-1598); the armed men are wearing the typical red attire of the Spanish soldiers of the time. Although religious at the outset, the theme takes on a political dimension. For the viewer of the day, this topical perspective made it particularly interesting and partly explains the popular success of this subject, of which there are numerous versions.

Several artists portrayed this theme, and although this painting was formerly attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder, it would appear more likely to be the work of Marten van Cleve. The composition of this work is indeed similar to that of the Massacre of the Innocents in Stockholm, where we find the majority of the groups of figures, for instance, the one of the woman in the foreground chased by an armed soldier. Furthermore, the headdress - a white cloth with both sides raised and tied at the top - of the woman on the right is characteristic of this artist, and the range of colours is closer to that of van Cleve rather than the vivid tonalities typical of Pieter Brueghel. However, a number of Brueghel's elements are taken from his Massacre of the Innocents painted circa 1566-1567. The choice to bring the action to the fore, but above all, the group of soldiers in the centre of the composition, absent from van Cleve's painting, undoubtedly reveal his familiarity with Brueghel's portrayal. It is quite possible that this panel was based on a study of his painting, even though Marten van Cleve reorganised the overall composition - as confirmed by this panel's small format. Furthermore, there are preliminary studies of this theme, which could support this theory.

Hence, this panel is a synthesis between the work of Marten van Cleve and Pieter Brueghel the Elder, two major painters of this period. Set in an animated scene, this painting illustrates the prosperity of Brabant villages severely challenged by the political turmoil of the era.

Provenance :
Private collection, Switzerland

same artist