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Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

THE first exhibition ever mounted of Flemish paintings in the Royal Collection, Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting, is on display in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace until Sunday, April 26, 2009.

The exhibition brings together 51 works from the 15th to 17th centuries, including masterpieces by Hans Memling, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Jan Brueghel, Van Dyck and Rubens.

By the 1550s, the Netherlands enjoyed a level of wealth that remained unmatched in the West for centuries. The Eighty Years War with Spain, from 1568 to 1648, all but destroyed the region’s infrastructure and creative industries. The paintings in the exhibition were produced in the Southern (Spanish-ruled) Netherlands during this period of extraordinary turbulence and its immediate aftermath, when peace was finally restored to the region.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7) which, at first glance, appears to be a peaceful scene of a village under snow. According to St Matthew’s Gospel, on hearing of the birth of the King of the Jews, Herod decreed that all newborn boys must be slaughtered. Bruegel puts this story in the contemporary setting of the hard winter of 1564-5.

In 1604, the painting, owned by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, was recorded in an inventory as a massacre. However, by 1621, it had changed to a scene of general plunder, the murdered infants having been painted over.

Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, SW1