This autumn, The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is lending the monumental Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem to the Rubens House for a while. So, the most expensive Rubens ever, often considered to be one of the young artist’s early masterpieces, returns home after 400 years.
The history of the canvas is nothing short of spectacular. The painting quickly became part of many prestigious collections, but has been wrongly attributed to various artists since the 18th century. In 2001, specialists clearly recognized the hand of the Antwerp master within the Baroque style. The discovery of the lost painting by Rubens was great news, and the work was sold. It was sold for a record £49.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2002, which makes the Massacre of the Innocents the most expensive painting from an old master ever. It was bought by Canadian businessman and collector, Ken Thomson, who donated it to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
The work presents a scene from the Bible. Following the Nativity of Jesus, King Herod learns that a new king has been born in Bethlehem and, fearing for his power, he orders the killing of all boys aged two or younger. To spare their child this horrific fate, Jesus’ parents flee to Egypt with the infant. The ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ was a popular theme in painting. It was depicted especially frequently during the Renaissance, when artists developed a fascination for Antiquity.
References to Antiquity and the Renaissance
Rubens painted his version of the episode around 1610; shortly after returning from Italy. The work is packed with drama and violence, while the numerous allusions to Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance enabled the young artist to present his credentials as an accomplished pictor doctus. He took inspiration for the crouching mother, for instance, from the antique nude Venus in the Gonzaga family collection in Mantua, where he had been able to study it as court painter. The soldier in the centre of the composition, meanwhile, who is about to stab an old woman with his sword, is borrowed from The Wrestlers, a sculpture Rubens saw at the Villa Medici in Rome. His comrade, whose eyes are clawed at by the semi-nude young woman, is based in turn on the celebrated Laocoön group, which Rubens sketched in 1602 during his visit to the papal collections in the Vatican. The deathly pale corpses of the murdered children strongly resemble the marble sculpture of three sleeping putti that Rubens saw at the Villa Borghese in Rome. References to the Italian Renaissance are also clearly visible: Rubens drew on the figure of Christ in Michelangelo’s Resurrection, for example, for the soldier on the right who is about to dash a child against the stonework. However, unlike Michelangelo’s Christ, who conquers death, Rubens’ soldier is its cause. The most famous and certainly the most widespread representation of the Massacre of the Innocents was probably Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving after a design by Raphael. Compared with the latter’s graceful composition, Rubens’ interpretation is more powerful, true to life, and hence considerably more gruesome. Rubens also appears to have looked at examples in Antwerp: the diagonal composition of the architecture in the background, for instance, shows similarities with a composition by the Antwerp master Frans Floris.