The Massacre of the Innocents, 
Painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640),
Painted in 1612,
Oil on canvas
© Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

The Massacre of the Innocents, 
Painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640),
Painted in 1612,
Oil on canvas
© Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Gospel of 28 December 2019

The Massacre of the Innocents

Matthew 2:13-18

After the wise men had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I called my son out of Egypt.

Herod was furious when he realised that he had been outwitted by the wise men, and in Bethlehem and its surrounding district he had all the male children killed who were two years old or under, reckoning by the date he had been careful to ask the wise men. It was then that the words spoken through the prophet Jeremiah were fulfilled:

A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loudly lamenting: it was Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they were no more.

Reflection on the Painting

During my time at Sotheby’s in London, I remember this painting being sold in 2002 for £49 million, which at the time was a record for any old Master painting sold at auction. A year before, my colleague had travelled to Stift Reichersberg, a monastery in northern Austria where he saw this painting for the first time. Almost instantly he was persuaded that it was indeed a painting by Rubens. Months of intense research and academic work followed, ending up with a firm attribution to Rubens. Then came the auction evening. Lights on, public and cameras present, frantic bidding ensued, till the hammer came down. Sold! The painting was bought by Canadian businessman and art collector Kenneth Thomson. He donated the work to Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where this work can now be admired by the public.

In typical Rubens’ fashion, it is a highly dramatic, theatrical and vivid depiction of our Gospel passage of today. Look at the skin tonalities of the living babies and those who have been killed… A difficult painting to look at. Matthew is the only Gospel writer to share the story of the Massacre with us. He deemed it important to tell us that this terrible massacre in Bethlehem is a foretaste of what we will see with Jesus on Calvary. We could even say that this massacre was one of the first clashes between politics and Christianity…

The reading isn’t easy, but it is exactly here that art can ad that extra dimension when reading the gospels. Through these vivid paintings, the gospel readings become very real and tangible. Especially Rubens so explicitly depicting what happened, makes it a heart-breaking episode to reflect on. Innocent children being killed by an unjust ruler wreaking havoc. Our sense of pain for them today, can stir us now to help the suffering children of our world. I am sure in some parts of the world, images could be generated by camera which wouldn’t be too dissimilar to our painting: starving children, homeless children, orphaned children of war, etc… The ‘Holy Innocents' of 2,000 years ago and the innocent children of today…

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