The Massacre of the Innocents – Paul Rubens Analysis

            Plump, voluptuous women usually grace the canvases of Paul Rubens, famous for popularizing the fuller figure. His work is commonly identified with rich coloring, sumptuous décor and sometimes rather lurid depictions of mythology. However, despite his penchant for the more risqué, Rubens does at times display a sensitivity towards the more tragic aspects of humanity, as seen in The Massacre of the Innocents. In fact, there is more reference to the Renaissance forefathers in this piece than in any other Rubens painting. We look at the design of the piece and unwrap what makes it a particularly interesting piece.

            The Massacre of the Innocents – Paul Rubens (c. 1611-1612), oil on wood (The National Gallery, Trafalgar). This painting was sold for a staggering £49.5 million by Sotheby’s for a private collection and was loaned to The National Gallery for exhibition (The National Gallery, Trafalgar). It is described as a “culmination or Ruben’s Italian experience”, where Rubens drew inspiration from some of the great Italian painters such as Titian and Tintoretto (The National Gallery, Trafalgar). Filled with sensual bodies and tragic slaughter, the painting is a mixture of ancient mythology and Biblical outrage.

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As described by Michael Savage (2005), the piece relies on “pose and gesture rather than strong individuation.”(Savage 2005). It is for this reason that the entire composition can be viewed together as a masterpiece rather than each individual character seen on its own. The painting measures 142 x 182 cm and is housed in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (Art and the Bible 2009).

            The piece is composed of a jumble of bodies in the act of disposing children and slaughtering them. It is intended to invoke the same sense of panic as there would have been at the time of Herod and the merciless slaughter of young children at the time. It must be considered that the religious aspect was a particularly important form of art at the time and did not lose popularity until the early 1800’s. The use of color is extremely important to the overall development of the piece in terms of design. Not only is color used symbolically, but it also draws the eye into the piece. In a V shape, the artist has placed a snowy white garment adorning a woman while just below her is a crimson robe. To offset this movement, is a sapphire blue piece of fabric worn by a man on the top right hand corner. The color placing forms a neat half-circle into which is piled a lot of motion. The women are predominantly painted a subtle pinkish white while the men are decidedly darker and more yellowish in appearance. The visual and optical result is that one has the idea that the women are softer in general. Interspersed with the vibrant garments, are splashes of gold in the form of robes and jewelry, but these are not overwhelming. The softness of the women’s bodies is juxtaposed to the cold hard steel color of the swords and armor. This serves not only as a balance in color but also as a symbolism of harshness against gentleness.

            Rubens creates depth by use of chiaroscuro and the movement of figures from the dark inner city onto the street (Absolute Astronomy 2009). This creates the illusion that the figures are moving out of the shadows and sometimes receding into them. Rubens has made considerable use of foreshortening and contrapposto to indicate the depth of both inanimate and animate subjects within the piece. The figures are all congregated on a linear plane with the bulk situated on the right hand side. This means that at first glance, the eye is drawn to the mass of action and spilled bodies on the right hand corner of the painting and then in a conical movement out towards the city. A triangular construction of activity is drawn from the bottom right hand corner to the top left hand corner, with the subjects appearing smaller towards the vanishing point. Rubens has an innate and special knowledge of perspective and human anatomy. The horizon line and vanishing point is in the middle of the left hand side of the painting with converging vertical horizons made up of the surrounding buildings. Rubens does not overly-detail the background in order not to over-exploit the canvas and in so doing makes the foreground the center of activity.

            The vanishing point in the background is slightly blurred to give the optical illusion of dusty streets and impending chaos. In order to maintain a sense of balance, the colors used in the background are muted and do not detract from the main scene, making it easier for the eye to digest what it is seeing. The linear plane of the foreground is counteracted by gray columns that emerge from behind the scene, giving it a greater sense of depth and balance and which would certainly have made considerable difference were they not placed there. The major figures are all facing the same direction and are slanted diagonally from left to right in an upward motion. The figures themselves are not dressed in Biblical clothing meaning the painting is representative of a time period that is slightly Baroque. The result of this is that while the painting is clearly biographical and iconographic, it is also meant for decorative purposes. Albeit rather gruesome in its nature, it typifies the Italian style of painting at the time that influenced Rubens and would therefore not be seen as unpleasant to look upon: “The scene is gorgeously balanced and composed, perfectly centred upon itself. The fact that the subject matter is so horrible and repellent appears to matter not one jot because the subject matter is sanctified by its biblical associations.”(Glover 2003).

            In conclusion, what makes The Massacre of the Innocents a particular successful piece of design is that the balance is expertly created out of a valiant use of perspective and shadow. The purpose of the painting and its composition is far from merely ‘thrown together’ and is carefully manipulated for the viewer to see the most important part of the painting. The subjects are treated with a strange sense of discord as it understandable in the circumstances of the theme. There is marked emphasis on the clothing and style of the subjects that is incongruous to the period of time in which the particular scene would have occurred, making the painting (typical of the period) curiously at odds with its subject matter.


Absolute Astronomy. Massacre of the Innocents. Exploring the Universe of Knowledge, 2009.

Art and The Bible. Massacre of the Innocents. 2009.

Glover, Michael. Rubens Brilliance and Brutality. The Independent, 2003.

Savage, Michael. Rubens: A Master in the Making. Culture Wars, 2005.

The National Gallery, Trafalgar. ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ by Rubens on loan to the National Gallery. Press Release Archive, January 2003.


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