In this masterpiece done by Peter Paul Rubens, I see not an ideology lighting the flame of war horrors (as in Goya’s “The Third of May”), rather I notice the inevitable fact that humans will always resort to an act of total carnage out of instinct. Those great hulking bodies that the Baroque movement encapsulated so well do not merely showoff their masculinity for the sake of beauty or athleticism, but rather to use that strength in a cascade of rage. These soldiers are smashing infant heads against walls, nearly plunging swords into flesh, clawing the skin off of people and gripping young maidens back by the braid of their hair. All of this is wrapped up into one titanic brawl. The only torch being lighted in this act of ferocity is that of human misery. This painting is quite simply, a maelstrom of violence.
According to the Gospel of St Matthew, the reason for this massacre was down to a new prefect of Israel. After being told by the Magi that a heir to the King of the Jews had been born, Herod the Great ordered a mass murdering of infants in Bethlehem. Although this historical incident is doubted, let’s not pretend that situations where infants – or people in general – were slaughtered in grotesque ways never occurred. Nevertheless, there seems to be a slew of bloodletting references to this event in the history of art. One that I thought a guilty joy to take pleasure in was Matteo di Giovanni’s depiction. It is quite clear who are the villains. And it would further seem that Giovanni takes great pleasure in characterizing these people as real creeps, fundamentally demented members of the human race. The skullduggery that they are engaged in might have seemed horrific centuries ago, but now one cannot help but take it in a lighthearted vain, for even though one of the brutes may be sticking a bloody knife into the head of an infant while holding back the arm of the mother, it is just too hard not to see these murderers as caricatures. That is an area where Ruben trumps his predecessors. His facial expressions vibrate with reality. They fit the action.
Unfortunately, I cannot say that I have ever seen “The Massacre of the Innocents” in person. But if I ever get the chance to see it, I do wonder how long it will take me to spot the painting in the gallery from afar, for it has such a distinctive look. Just observe the blue and red robes. One – the red robe – is a fixed point. Though, what’s more interesting about this robe is that it is red, an assuredly eye-catching color. Now let us look at the blue robe. Where else the red one is more fixed, the blue robe contrasts the red one by being in motion. There is also the light blue and dark green robes which are more like the secondary actors in the scene that are effective as well. Once the viewer is drawn in by the varying colors of the robes, the viewer will naturally zoom in on the sky, which is obstructed by the buildings, making for an interesting shape. All of these factors contribute to a well structured canvas, in terms of how Rubens devises his shapes and by what colors he selects to put in them.
Rubens is the harbinger of the Baroque movement. If one is familiar with his canvases, one can so easily recognize them. He stamps these recognizable works by movement. A type of movement so robust, that when one views “The Massacre of the Innocents,” one becomes overwhelmed by its galactic signature. There is just this explosive feel and sense of immediate action. Men turn into savages by tearing at women’s faces, wielding infants from over their heads to be ultimately shattered from the face of the planet. Also, the woman in red at the center of the canvas is striking. While she is hanging on to her child, she proceeds to claw the intruder. What is so arresting about this is that her arms are caught right at this vertical angle. She acts as the hub of the violence in the painting. Indeed, the painting is visually showing the worst part of human nature. Rubens seems to suggest that out of the glory of the Renaissance, humans will still find a capacity for bloodshed. There is still that fragility of human life, no matter how enlightened one might be.
As the eyes glance over the cataclysmic struggle of human life that is being waged, the movement of the figures will not be broken asunder, for in all of this trance that the viewer is left in, one is reminded of an inexorable cycle. People will still attempt horrible acts of violence, partly because I believe humans have to regenerate inherent qualities that exist within their psyche. Humans try to make themselves appear so sane, when in reality they will always unleash mad havoc. Therein lies not just the melancholy of this artwork, but also the dejection of the viewer. It can only require madness to spread carnage, but to create such resonating art knowing full well that one is a part of that same race that will destroy others, is madness as well.