The greatest Baroque artists

Peter Paul Rubens (1577- 1640) was one of the greatest Baroque artists of the eighteenth century. In the years 1600 - 1608, Rubens visited Italy, and witnessed the works of a famous Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio. Within these years, he became greatly influenced by the master of Baroque painters. In 1611, Rubens made an oil painting on an oak panel, called The Massacre of the Innocents. The painting depicts the massacre ordered by King Herod. The King had been warned by the Three Wise Men that a King of the Jews had been born, and would become his rival if he didn't prevent it. However, the newborn child and his parents (Mary and Joseph) were already on their way to Egypt[1]. Depicting this massacre was a popular theme in seventeenth century Italian paintings, because it gave artists the opportunity to deliver vivid action and emotion[2]. In the painting, Peter Paul Rubens places the viewer amidst the horrifying, gory, fierce, and emotionally distressful panorama of the Massacre.

When looking at the painting for the first time, the viewer's eyes are directly drawn towards the innocent in the tainted hands of the assassin (in the top right corner). There are many subtle signs in the painting that lead the viewer's eyes towards the baby. A significant pointer is the composition- the way each individual is placed. When looking at the painting from left to right, the viewer can notice that the focal point is at the back of the painting; it leads the eyes backward into the illusionary third dimension with the curving road[3]. From that point on, everyone gradually "grows"- people in the background are blurry and very small, with one woman on the far left is kneeling down, the other women are sitting or crouching, and eventually there is the man standing. It somewhat creates an image of an evolution- as if the picture is progressing into something big. The progression from left to right efficiently helps build up the terror Rubens tries to portray in his painting. When looking from left to right, the murderous deeds get more horrific, positioning the baby as the centre of attention.

Heinrich Wolfflin's five principles can be used to identify this painting. Firstly, Rubens The Massacre of the Innocents can be described as painterly. The edges and lines that are supposed to help distinguish each figure as an individual are loosely painted, causing the figures to blend into each other, forming a continuous whole[4]. The lines are painted in a calm fashion even though the painting renders turbulence. Thus, it would be difficult to isolate each individual element and make sense of it. For instance, if one were to isolate the pleading woman on the right, one would wonder who or what the man holding the baby captive in the air is looking at. This painting is also a great example of recession because the painting was done during the Baroque period. The clouds gather and direct the viewer's eye towards the continuous road. The Massacre of the Innocents portrays a continuation of space. The Massacre doesn't take place in a confined area, but is placed outdoors, in an open area. Each figure in the painting shares a unified dramatic action and extreme emotion of fright, alarm, and pain. Just like the grieving mothers trying to protect their children, the executioner holding the baby up (far right) also looks as if in ache. Rubens expresses sympathy for the victims, and shows an admiration for the strength of the executioners who are portrayed as handsome and vigorous. Even though the oil paint on this painting is done with a loose hand, the figures are clear. Absolute clarity is portrayed when looking at the folds on the red, orange and blue lavish cloths. It is also recognizable in the body parts of the assassins, such as their muscles (calves, abs, and triceps).

Colours are a very important aspect of a painting as they bring along with them hues and tones. In Rubens The Massacre of the Innocents, the artist uses mainly primary colours. The significant use of primary colours is its richness. In the painting, the artist mainly employs the secondary colour formed by the mixing of all the primary colours together making the colour brown. He surprisingly used warm colours to make a painting that is meant to depict a massacre and bloodshed of innocent babies, which generally would be shown as gruesome. There is a strong contrast of light and dark in Rubens masterpiece. The chiaroscuro in his painting heightens the sense of drama he wishes to delineate. The light in the painting is coming from the bottom left corner gradually illuminating everything until the light doesn't make it to the top right corner of the painting. The way the light illuminates the painting, emphasizes how smoothly the paint is laid onto the oak panel. It looks as smooth as the skin of each individual- soft. Space in this painting is taken up by the overlapping of the mourning women protecting their children, and the killers trying to get the infants out of their mothers' grip. Each figure in the massacre extends over a part of another, creating a sense of depth. There is an asymmetrical balance that exists in this piece. If one were to cut the painting in half, both sides would be unequal. All of these aspects come together to ultimately form a coherent whole.

The Massacre of the Innocents is a great masterpiece created by Ruben with the influence of Caravaggio's own painting technique. Rubens influences are seen in the painting through the sheer drama, naturalism, and the use of rich colours and emotive dynamism of the scene. Unity is also greatly depicted in this painting. The Massacre of the Innocents was bought by Kenneth Thomson in 2002 for £49.5 million, making the painting the most expensive Old Master painting sold at an auction. He donated this lovely piece to the Art Gallery of Ontario, where it hangs amongst many other famous works.


  • Hudson, Suzanne, and Nancy Noonan. The Art of Writing About Art. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2001.
  • Marrow, Deborah. "JSTOR: An Error Occurred Setting Your User Cookie." JSTOR: An Error Occurred Setting Your User Cookie. 27 Jan. 2009 .
  • Minor, Vernon Hyde. Art History's History. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2000.
  1. Marrow, Deborah. "JSTOR: An Error Occurred Setting Your User Cookie." JSTOR: An Error Occurred Setting Your User Cookie. 27 Jan. 2009 .
  2. Marrow, Deborah. "JSTOR: An Error Occurred Setting Your User Cookie." JSTOR: An Error Occurred Setting Your User Cookie. 27 Jan. 2009 .
  3. Minor, Vernon Hyde. Art History's History. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2000.
  4. Minor, Vernon Hyde. Art History's History. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2000.

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