This refined painting on copper can be dated to the 1620s and is a collaboration between Hendrik van Balen and Jan Breughel II. The two artists first worked together in 1620, before Breughel embarked on his trip to Italy in 1622. When Breughel’s Italian sojourn was cut short by the unexpected death of his father in the cholera epidemic of 1625, he returned to Antwerp to take over his father’s studio and resumed his partnership with van Balen, who was an executor of his father’s estate. From 1626 onwards, Breughel’s journal lists numerous compositions that were jointly produced, and their fruitful collaboration only ended with van Balen’s death in 1632.
The subject derives from the biblical episode of The Massacre of the Innocents as narrated in the Gospel of Saint Matthew (2:16-18). On hearing of the birth of Christ, Herod, King of Judea, decreed that all male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem under the age of two be slain. Van Balen depicts in vivid colours the moment that the soldiers carry out the command of the king, while Breughel elects to locate the scene within a contemporary Flemish village rather than in a historical setting.