Rubens Massacre Of The Innocents Essay Help

Niccolo Machiavelli, in his myth-making, disturbing, oddly likable political classic The Prince (c1516), holds that a leader should always be ready to make war, partly because "nothing brings a prince more prestige than great campaigns", but more profoundly because Fortune is so unpredictable that audacity is better than caution. And for Tony Blair he offers the further encouragement: "A prince also wins prestige for being a true friend or a true enemy, that is, for revealing himself without any reservation in favour of one side against another."

Machiavelli had no influence on any actual prince; he had been lucky not to be executed by the Medici. And yet his words spread like poison through 16th- and 17th-century Europe. He was seen as a devil because he described what rulers really did and thought, rather than what they said they did.

This was the problem Peter Paul Rubens faced when he arrived in London on a diplomatic mission to secure peace between Spain and Britain in 1629. Rubens was challenged by a Machiavellian world in which war was admired: the nobility paid lip service to chivalry, atrocities could be praised as courageous and history itself was equated, in paintings and plays, with the making of war. How do men win glory? At war. How do monarchs secure the boundaries and identity of the state? By winning great battles. And then there was religion. Because of the religious divisions that followed the Reformation, all kinds of barbarities could be contemplated, from the Catholics' sadistic sack of Antwerp to Cromwell's slaughter in Ireland.

Rubens was a peacemaker in a world of martial enthusiasts. The painter, courtier and diplomat seems to have been a genuine rather than rhetorical lover of peace, and not surprisingly - he had plenty to lose. His was a good life. His autumnal view of his own country house, Het Steen, in the National Gallery, is a vision of peace, plenty and deeply rooted pleasure. You can see how he enjoyed his immensely successful life, this man who painted for the monarchs of Europe and could converse with royal patrons as an equal.

So in 1629 he found himself in London, charged with promoting peace. His job was to facilitate an exchange of ambassadors between Britain and Spain, which he did, leading to the (fragile) peace treaty signed on November 15 1630. But Rubens did more than talk. He showed. He painted a picture in England as a gift for Charles I, an allegory of war and peace. Rubens's painting, Minerva Protects Pax from Mars, owned by the National Gallery, has a unique status among anti-war artworks: this is not a protest from below, a banner in the street, but an argument presented in the most powerful political circles. Pax - Peace - is a bountiful Rubens nude, offering her breast to Plutus, the child god of wealth. The painting's main argument is a hardheaded one, for all the gorgeous painterly effects: peace is good for the economy. At the feet of Pax, a satyr, a creature of pleasure, examines an overflowing horn of plenty; another attendant brings gold and jewels.

But there are other benefits besides wealth that peace nurtures and war destroys. A woman banging a tambourine represents the arts. In the foreground are children, reminding Charles I of war's most vulnerable victims. Minerva, goddess of wisdom and the arts, is holding back Mars, god of war, and the fury Alecto from destroying this scene of paradisical plenty. Mars in black armour eyes his potential victims greedily.

Rubens explicitly and tragically returned to this painting's theme in The Horrors of War (1637-8), in the Pitti Palace in Florence. Almost a decade had passed, and the peace he had championed, and many others, were forgotten. Soon Charles I would be at war with his own subjects. The war between Spain and the rebellious Dutch that had ransacked Rubens's Antwerp in the 16th century was on again. In The Horrors of War, Mars is no longer holding himself back. He is going crazy. At his feet, all the good things - music, literature - lie ruined, and a woman hugs her child as war bears down on them.

We should look at The Massacre of the Innocents, the visceral early painting by Rubens that has recently gone on show at the National Gallery, as an intimation of this later masterpiece. It was painted probably in 1611 or 1612, when Rubens had come home from Italy to set up studio in Antwerp, and connects his allegorical, courtly pacifist arguments with a more primal horror at atrocities, at killing babies wrenched from their mothers' arms.

It is the moment when Herod sends his soldiers to kill infants at Bethlehem in case one of them should be the Messiah. In early modern Europe, this was recognised as an image of what war does. This was a time when innocents were routinely massacred. "I live in an epoch when, owing to the nature of our [religious] civil wars," wrote the essayist Montaigne, "we abound in incredible examples of the vice of cruelty; there is nothing to be found in ancient histories more extreme than what we witness everyday."

Antwerp, where Rubens lived, was a city haunted by horrors of war. The most explicitly contemporary, documentary painting of The Massacre of the Innocents, which boldly depicts it as a modern act of warfare in an icy northern landscape, is by Rubens's Flemish predecessor Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Unlike that of Bruegel, Rubens's Massacre is set historically, in a decaying classical city. Or is it? Rubens's scene might recall the Sack of Antwerp in 1576, in which 7,000 people died in military rape and killing. An English observer compared the aftermath of the Antwerp massacre to Michelangelo's Last Judgment, an epic of contorted bodies.

The violence of Rubens's Massacre is shoved in our face by a theatrical presentation that turns the city street into a stage set, at the very front of which, pressed horribly towards us, is a fleshy tangle of clawing fingers, plunging swords and murderedbabies. This is, just as explicitly as in Bruegel, a painting of armoured soldiers killing infants. The soldier in dark shining armour anticipates Mars in The Horrors of War. The sheer quantity of flesh we are confronted with is oppressive; there is a claustrophobia in the way Rubens forces us to look at those tiny discoloured corpses.

This is also one of the paintings in which Rubens's full, florid style - his movement, dynamism, vigorous fleshy life - comes into its own. And it has to be acknowledged that, however much this painting rages against cruelty, it is also a cruel painting. There is a fascination with the technical, physical problem of depicting heightened action in a tight group, with the intertwinings of arms and backs and the falling and the lunging and the grabbing.

Rubens became openly interested in the aesthetics of violence in a series of paintings of hunting, including A Lion Hunt (c1616-17), which hangs opposite the Massacre. Rubens's Lion Hunt savagely compresses the bodies of animals and men fighting each other - a lion has sunk its teeth into a horse rider's back while he is still on the horse. Rubens is not worried here about ethics, only about capturing a dream of fighting. It is Gangs of New York - with lions. Rubens produced in his strange hunts an art of intimate cruelty and set the stage for modern representations of war.

Picasso's Guernica is in part modelled on Rubens's The Horrors of War. Guernica's most heart-churning image, that of a woman cradling her baby, whose face is a brief cartoon of death, deliberately invokes the woman with her baby in Rubens's allegory. This kind of quotation mattered to Picasso, who saw fascism as the enemy of art and whose affinity for Rubens goes beyond one painting. In the 1930s, Picasso constantly suggests Rubens. Paintings such as Nude in a Red Armchair (1932) in Tate Modern are voluptuously Rubensian; and he also pursues, in some of his most shocking paintings, the violence of Rubens's A Lion Hunt.

Picasso loved the corrida; he had a taste for death and violence. And that is why he was able to imagine what it means to bomb a town. And for the same reason that Guernica is an undying protest against war, Rubens's Massacre of the Innocents is a universal image of atrocity. Rubens was always partly of the devil's party, Machiavelli's party.

· Rubens's Massacre of the Innocents is at the National Gallery, London WC2. Details: 020-7747 2885.

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