Marten van Cleve has long been established as one of the leading Flemish artists of his generation. His interests lay primarily in depicting scenes from contemporary life, such as peasant weddings, dances and kermesses, subjects that were much indebted to the work of his contemporary Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Far from simply copying works by Bruegel, van Cleve devised his own subjects and compositions, which were highly successful, and in turn influenced the work of Brueghel the Younger. Numerous details in this painting, particularly the characterization of many of the faces, show striking stylistic affinities with the hand of Brueghel the Younger, highlighting the impact that van Cleve played on his early artistic development.
The prime version of this composition is a lost painting by van Cleve, to which a signed drawing by the artist in the Print Room of the University of Gothingen is presumably related (G. Marlier, Pieter Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels, 1969, p. 337, fig. 200). The composition relates closely to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s rendition of the same subject at Hampton Court (Royal Collection). The scene, drawn from Matthew 2:16-18, depicts soldiers carrying out the command of King Herod, who ordered that all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two should be slain, after hearing from the wise men of the birth of Jesus. Instead of locating this biblical scene within a historical setting, however, the atrocities take place in a contemporary Flemish village. This has often been interpreted as containing a political subtext, as a condemnation of the excesses of Hapsburg soldiers in the war-torn Low Countries during the second half of the sixteenth century: the Roman soldiers representing the Spanish army and German mercenaries employed by Phillip II of Spain to regain control over his rebelling provinces.
The artist’s fully authenticated oeuvre remains small. This picture is offered with a copy of a letter of expertise from Dr. Klaus Ertz (dated 14 April 2014), confirming the attribution to Marten van Cleve and dating the picture to 1570.