Palace opens treasure trove of Flemish paintings

Thu Oct 16, 2008 1:41pm EDT
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By Samantha Pearson

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.   Continued...

<p>Buckingham Palace in London is shown in this file photo, taken June 15, 2008. REUTERS/Jason Reed</p>