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LONDON (Reuters) - Buckingham Palace opens its ornate gates to the public on Friday for an exhibition which showcases 51 of the finest Flemish paintings in the Royal Collection, hoarded over centuries by British monarchs.
For the first time the Queen's Gallery has brought together treasures by the likes of Rubens, Bruegel and Van Dyck to tell the tale of European art's secret massacres and royal embarrassments.
The exhibition of 15th to 17th century paintings illustrates the turbulent period when Flanders, the region that makes up parts of modern-day Belgium, Holland and France, staged a bloody and drawn-out revolt against Spanish rule.
"It is this fascinating, tragic story of 80 years of war," the Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures and curator, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, told Reuters at a press view on Thursday.
He said the exhibition aimed to help explain the story behind its most prized but confusing possession.
"The most important painting in the collection is Bruegel's 'Massacre of the Innocents' which is completely incomprehensible unless you know about the political history of Flanders at that time," Shawe-Taylor said.
A deceptively picturesque scene of a Flemish village under snow, the painting seems to depict peasants ransacking nearby houses -- a scene of mass plunder rather than mass murder.
When Bruegel originally painted the work in 1567 he based it on the biblical story in which King Herod ordered the murder of babies to keep his kingdom secure, intending the painting to be a bitter satire on the brutalities of Spanish rule.
But the painting soon fell into the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II who, fearful of angering his relatives in the Spanish court, ordered artists to paint over the dead children.
A baby lying in the snow at it's mother's feet is now an array of hams and cheeses while small animals, bundles of food, and ominous smudges conceal the bloody scenes.
Shawe-Taylor said he hoped the collection's universal themes, ranging from scenes of war to erotic love, and several works by Rubens would help attract more than 70,000 visitors to see a style of art not always popular with the public.
Even Michelangelo once condemned the Flemish style, saying it would only appeal to women, the very young or old, monks, nuns, and noblemen.
One highlight for Rubens fans is a self-portrait which he donated to Charles I to make up for an embarrassing blunder.
Two years earlier, Rubens had ordered his assistants to paint a lion hunt rather than do it himself, not knowing the work was destined for Charles I. The king, an avid art collector, immediately recognized the deception and returned it.
Rubens and Snyder's painting "Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism," bought by Queen Victoria, is also on show, although not officially part of the collection.
Only recently restored, it is one of the Royal Collection's 7,000 paintings which are normally on loan or in storage.
Looming over the collection's golden chairs and ornate clocks, Rubens's giant painting depicts the Greek mathematician and famous vegetarian. Pythagoras is shown trying to convince a group of men to give up meat for fruit and vegetables while buxom naked women look on in admiration.
The Queen's Gallery, built from the ruins of the palace chapel which was destroyed by an air raid in 1940, will host the exhibition until April next year.
Editing by Mike Collett-White and Paul Casciato