In Matthew’s story, the departure of the Holy Family from Bethlehem echoes with more tragic sounds. Cries of distraught mothers, weeping for dead children. Artists generally keep these two narratives separate. Yet William Holman Hunt’s painting insists on pairing these two events which the evangelist has also closely interwoven. Or rather, Hunt imagines the continuation of the story of these dead innocents, understood since the early church as the first martyrs for Christ, his first companions in suffering. Already, Christ’s death is foreshadowed in the bloody slaughter of innocent babies, too young to understand their fate. But already, too, these children share in his resurrection and his victory, and now join the Holy Family on the road to safety.
Hunt (an English artist who travelled to the Middle East to research his painting) has made this connection with Easter explicit, by locating the flight in April, sixteen months after the Nativity. Springtime in the Holy Land is evoked by the flowers and the fruit. As our eyes move across the canvas, the solidity of resurrection life becomes increasingly evident. Three cherubic infants wake from the sleep of death at the top left. In the centre foreground, below Mary and Jesus, a more robust child examines the wound caused by the soldier’s sword, now healed in his glorified body. The infants at the front of the triumphal procession lead the way confidently, while those bringing up the rear exemplify their role as sacrificial victims (symbolized by their garlands of flowers) and martyrs now rising to new life (which Hunt has conveyed by their ‘branches of blossoming trees’ (Hunt 1885: 9)). The stream they paddle in becomes a great flood, the streams of the eternal life they now enjoy.
In this painting, rich in typology, these children prefigure all future Christian martyrs. Hunt has thereby offered a vivid pictorial answer to the apostle Paul’s rhetorical question: ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55).
Hunt, William Holman. 1885. The Triumph of the Innocents (London)