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Massacre of the Innocents

For a few centuries, history painting was considered the pinnacle of art. These epic paintings portrayed "important" moments from the past, focusing on the deeds of great men while evoking the grandeur of classical statuary. Before there was history as a discipline, there were these paintings--which mythologized political and military power as sublime heroism. Benjamin West's painting The Death of General Wolfe (1770) sums the whole genre up:

It's got the theatricality of a Hollywood WW2 movie--the kind from the old days where, when people are shot, they give a five-minute speech about how their sacrifice was worth it all and ask their pals to make sure to tell their mom they love her. Then they collapse gently, a perfectly intact and bloodless corpse.

This week as I watched history unfold--or rather, how the media portray history unfolding--I thought about how little we've progressed in our understanding of war and what it does to people. The bloodless, passionless, neutralized numbness of public school social studies classes prepares us to accept politicians as moral agents and wars as crusades against the ultimate evil. Pieter Bruegel, who painted history before there was history painting, knew better.

I never appreciated Bruegel until I read Toby Ferris's incredible book Short Life in A Strange World (2020)--a series of meditations on his own life and that of his father, woven around the author's quest to see every Bruegel painting in situ. This week I've been thinking a lot about Ferris's take on Bruegel's painting The Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1565-67). It seems to sum up this moment and its failures of imagination in so many ways. Most of all Bruegel presents an anti-history painting--a painting that (sometimes inadvertently) condemns how we do history, and shows us how art can expose our vital lies and lead us to an awful confrontation with the truth about ourselves, the strangers we feel compassion for, and the strangers we ignore.

The story comes from the Bible, where Herod has ordered his soldiers to kill every first-born male child in Judea, in the hopes he can find the Messiah before he grows up. Bruegel sets it squarely in the modern era, in a Flemish village during the winter. As the picture appears now it looks as if the soldiers of Herod are doing little more than looting and pillaging. The violence, in fact, seems a little bizarre. In the center of the painting, a soldier with piebald pants skewers a pig while another attempts to stab a large urn that a woman is holding onto for dear life.

Elsewhere a large group of soldiers seem hell-bent on impaling a turkey and a goose:

Herod ordered a massacre of human infants, not turkeys and urns. Why would Bruegel paint something so ludicrous? Answer: he didn't. The painting was "revised" when it came into the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II , who was considered the greatest art patron of the time. The only problem was Rudolph was a Habsburg, the most powerful dynasty in Europe and as it turns out Bruegel had originally painted the scene as an atrocity perpetrated by Philip II of Spain's troops on the Dutch. Philip was a Habsburg and the figures in the painting were flying his coat of arms before they were painted over.

They weren't the only thing painted over. If you look carefully at this detail of a soldier stabbing a goose through its neck...'ll see two little feet emerging from the 16th century version of white-out. That's because Bruegel didn't paint a massacre of the birds. They were babies and children being butchered by the enthusiastic soldiers of the Habsburg regime.

Naturally a Habsburg would want to censor the crimes of his family and fellow monarchs. What I find perplexing is why, when the painting was restored a few decades ago, the decision was made to leave the birds where they were. It makes sense when you know who owns it now--the British royal family--ever since Charles II bought it. It's not good taste to dwell on the violence that brought people like you to power and keeps you there.

In his chapter on this painting, Toby Ferris wrote that the post-war Europe he grew up in seemed completely alien to the violent world Bruegel depicted: "Europe was healed, and history done. But underlying it all, at its roots, there had always been these bodies, this massacre. Everything I had grown up valuing had in fact been layers of other people's atonement, daubed over the continent like thick paint. Paint that was now peeling away, as the generations passed."

These eerily prescient words perfectly describe this particular moment when history is being made. The question is what kind of history. As I was writing this the New York Times posted a photograph of a family killed by a Russian mortar attack on their main page. If I take some cold comfort in seeing that Americans are finally exposed to the horrors of war, I only have to remember that Chelsea Manning was imprisoned for showing Americans the same thing. The only difference is that when Manning leaked the footage, it was of American soldiers doing the same things Russians now do to our horror. Sorry, that wasn't the only difference. The other difference was that the people being massacred were not white, Christian, or "driving the same cars we do".

As Ferris observed, so much of our history is like what happened to this painting. The crimes are covered up, pasted over, sanitized, whitewashed. The original meaning gets lost. The outrage and horror get diluted. The recognition of what we do and what we are slinks back into repression. War becomes a spectacle, a Marvel movie. The screams only echo in the nightmares of the victims for whom as Rod Serling put it, "midnight never ends." And like Orwell's Ministry of Truth, official history works assiduously to turn down the volume on those screams.

There's one thing the censors didn't cover up:

It's a scene at the bottom right of some mercenaries battering down a door. The banging is so furious, it shakes the roof, shattering icicles there that fall to the ground like sharp, frozen tears. I can hear the sound of the halberd rapping against the wood. I can feel the walls shake. That's because it's me on the other side of the door, cowering in fear.

When I was younger I used to have a recurring nightmare:

It was always a soldier, always on the other side of the door. The dream ended when he burst through. It went on intermittently for years. It only stopped when somehow in the dream I decided to fight back. My imagination gave me the sense of how terrible this encounter would be, even though I never directly experienced it. The same imagination--which Bruegel also had--allows me to feel compassion for those who do. While history teaches us to shudder at our enemies atrocities and ignore our own, there is a countervailing force that can see things as they are and feel the pain of others. Bruegel shows us that even though we can't see those people on the other side of the door--maybe even don't want to see them--they are nevertheless there.

History hides what we are afraid to see. Art, at its best, reveals what we must see if we want to be something more than monsters.


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