Virgin and Child with the Massacre of the Innocents

WAG 1017


This picture is damaged and discoloured. As a result the brown underpainting of the Virgin’s dress shows through the glazes of oil paint, producing a greenish tinge. It originally would have been light blue. In the background children are being killed - the Massacre of the Innocents – as ordered by King Herod in an attempt to put to death the new-born Jesus. Isenbrandt and his studio made a good living in Bruges, mainly painting small religious scenes. He was made head of the town’s Guild of Sculptors in 1526 and 1537. Before William Roscoe bought this painting it was believed to be an early painting by Raphael. Roscoe realised that it was not by the great Italian Renaissance artist. He attributed it instead to Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, one of Raphael’s artist friends and occasional assistant between 1504 and 1508. The pose of the Christ Child is close to one in a painting by Raphael, which Ridolfo is supposed to have finished. The painting was only attributed for stylistic reasons to the Bruges-based artist Isenbrandt in the 1930s. Before then it had been attributed to the North Netherlandish painter Jan Mostaert (born about 1475, died 1555 or 1556). Small details in the distant background here show scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. On the left, she is shown visiting her cousin Elizabeth. On the right, the Archangel Gabriel announces to her that she will be the mother of Christ. Mary and Jesus hold an apple. The fruit refers to the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. When this painting was sold in Liverpool in 1839 it was said wrongly to be by the great 15th-century Bruges-based artist. It may have been painted in Brussels in the 16th century. It was acquired before 1842 by the Liverpool Royal Institution that William Roscoe helped found. Liverpool’s economic development grew directly from Britain’s involvement with transatlantic slavery: the kidnapping, enslavement and forced migration of people from West Africa to the Americas and many to the Caribbean. Many members of the Royal Institution made their fortunes directly through the trade or indirectly through the wider economy. This wealth was largely how they were able to bring rare art and treasures, such as this, to the city.