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Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ (1577–1640) recently discovered masterpiece “The Massacre of the Innocents” (1609–1611) has received transient notoriety as the world’s most expensive painting. Rubens’ striking depiction of state sponsored murder of infant children tenaciously holds our attention. We see it like a still from a breaking major news story. It captures only a moment of the terror but all human emotions are expressed within it.
On the far right, we see a child about to have his head struck against a stone pillar. A shaken impact syndrome at a time long before such diagnosis became all too commonplace.
Other children are being torn from their mother’s arms, or lying dead are trampled underfoot. A mother bitterly mourns over her dead child, while others are in vain trying to prevent the soldiers’ slaughter of their children or to escape.
The human tragedy is emphasised without resorting to unnecessary horrific detail. We can look at it in terms of a callous disregard for human life, the evil of the state, the release of male violence, and the powerless of women and children.
As the world’s most expensive portrait we can ask about the injustice of such a description bestowed on any picture: but especially on one devoted to such a subject as this. We have to live in the world as we find it rather than, as we would wish it to be.
But such is the power of this image you can almost hear the screams.
I would like to acknowledge Waldemar Januszczak’s article on Sir Peter Paul Rubens in the Sunday Times (March 16, 2003), which inspired this piece.
Reproduced with permission of the National Portrait Gallery where this picture is presently being shown, on loan from a private collection ().
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