Violence and Vileness in History: The massacre of the innocents

Last month saw me heading off to Amsterdam to the terrific Rijksmuseum, to see some of the splendours of Dutch painting. Particularly wanted to see this horrific picture, Cornelis Van Haarlem’s Massacre of the Innocents. It is truly disturbing. Worse than almost anything ever shown in a movie – worse than anything ever shown is a mainstream movie for sure!


I saw a lot of great stuff there – art and film – of which more later. I came back still enthusiastic about the Netherlands and its art and culture. So the other day I watched a Dutch film called “Kenau” about female fighters during the Siege of Haarlem in 1572-3. It’s apparently true, and there is a legendary super-tough female warrior called Kenau, about whom there are many stories and plays which despite there being little historical evidence are definitely part of the Dutch popular history. The film is pretty violent, but not a patch on this painting.

According to the museum website, van Haarlem was a child during the siege, and must have witnessed the awfulness and the violence. Many of the population were killed. If you look at the painting by van Haarlem above you’ll see women fighting against the terrifying nude soldiers. (Why are they nude? Was the painter trying to show them as superhuman, or demons? It’s interesting because they seem like classical figures, like Greek sculptures, yet performing heinous brutal acts. This is an example of what’s known as Northern mannerism which is usually very badly defined in books and the web, but seems to me to indicate a kind of distorted yet functional realism amid complex and highly dynamic compositions. And in the case of the Dutch artists, fairly perverse too. Anyway that’s what we see here.)

As well, in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem there’s a painting of this legendary Kenau by J.H. Egenberger, done in 1854. The film’s not bad, it’s a pretty typical ‘national history’ film with very bad Spaniards and eloquent speeches about ‘freedom’ but it does have a pretty brilliant ice skating scene.