Rudolph II was so upset by Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Massace of the Innocents, now in the Royal Collection, that he had the images of babies replaced by farmyard animals. The soldiers might look quaint to our eyes, but were all too familiar to his.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Procession to Calvary, which I saw in the Art Fund offices last week, must have seemed equally resonant. When it was painted in 1602, Flanders was being repressed by Spain; the phalanx of cavalry must have looked grimly recognisable.
This is a picture full of incident, to study with your reading glasses on your nose. It may not be as grand as Titian (hence the relatively modest asking price of £2.7 million), but the strip-cartoon quality of the narrative should have a wide appeal. Brueghel has painted the scene as if it were a passion play put on by Flemish town folk. Only a rare turban suggests the Holy Land.
The gaggle of humanity winds past a wayside cross (an anachronism, obviously), and the thieves who will be crucified with Christ are accompanied by monks.
This week, the National Gallery has given the masterpiece wall space-the first time for an appeal for a different institution. Forget Gauguin: this is the show to see.