‘Here one sees a great confusion of naked Child-killers, and the efforts of the Mothers to save their children: also divers Flesh tones of different ages, thus of Men, Women, and that tender young flesh of the children, and the change wrought by death in the drained bodies.’ So wrote the artists’ biographer Karel van Mander in his Schilder-Boeck of 1604. He described the work as ‘an excellent piece’.
The painting depicts the horrific massacre in Bethlehem that was carried out on the orders of the tyrannical King Herod in an attempt to kill the newborn Christ child (Matthew 2:16-18). In a turbulent composition, the callous soldiers of Herod’s army seize the helpless infants. Women trying in vain to save their children are thrown roughly to the ground by the soldiers.
So that the new centrepiece of the Massacre would harmonize with the two existing side panels by Maerten van Heemskerck, Cornelis van Haarlem squared off the side panels – which were originally lobed – and filled in the corners so that it appears as if Maerten van Heemskerck’s composition carries through. To express his admiration for his distinguished predecessor he used a study drawing from one of Van Heemskerck’s sketchbooks, which he owned, for the arm of the soldier on the right in the painting.