2 Maccabees 7

The Holy Maccabean Martyrs

Commentaries by Nerida Newbigin

Works of art by Antonio Ciseri, Neri di Bicci and Unknown Byzantine artist

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Antonio Ciseri

The Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees, 1857–63, Oil on Canvas, 450 x 260 cm, Church of Santa Felicita, Florence; akg-images / Rabatti & Domingie

Suffering as High Poetry

Commentary by Nerida Newbigin

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The biblical text is a starting point, providing the characters (Antiochus, the widowed mother and her seven sons, and the executioners) and the location (Jerusalem, according to Gregory of Nazianzus [Vinson 2003: 72–84], though here looking like the Rome of Santa Felicita). It does not seem to provide spiritual inspiration to a higher good; rather it is taken as high poetry, which the painting attempts to rival. 

The gruesome torments of the sons are not shown. Their bodies are not grotesquely mutilated, but rather they are exquisitely represented in contorted lifeless poses, their unblemished flesh half covered with rich cloths. Their pain is not visible, but the tragedy of their lost lives is.

All the focus is on the mother. Her sons are in front of her. Her last born is naked on her lap, but she raises her arms serenely, even triumphantly, to heaven, offering them all to God who has promised eternal life.

The altar where they had been ordered to make their sacrifice to the pagan gods, together with the pig’s head that they had been ordered to eat, are visible in the background between her arms, but she reaches beyond them in silent faith that God’s covenant will be kept. The tyrant in the background, despite his arrogant pose, is reduced, like the executioners, to irrelevance.

Antonio Ciseri (1821–91) had begun working on his masterpiece as early as 1852, but it was only formally ‘commissioned’ by Santa Felicita in 1861, after Ciseri had offered his work to the nuns for the cost of materials only. Where Gregory focused on the triumph of reason over emotion, Ciseri’s scene embodies romantic pathos wherever the eye turns, and works on and through the emotions. His motives may well have been personal artistic ambition as much as spiritual devotion.



Del Bravo, Carlo. 1975. ‘Milleottocentosessanta’, Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa: Classe di Lettere e Filosofia , serie 3, 5.2: 779–95

François, Maria Cristina. 2011. ‘Dall’Archivio di Santa Felicita: cronistoria del Martirio dei Maccabei di Antonio Ciseri, “onore di Firenze e d’Italia”’, Amici del Palazzo Pitti: Bollettino, pp.35–46

Gargani, Gargano. 1863. Del quadro in tela: i Maccabei e la madre, pittura del professore Antonio Ciseri da Locarno. Discorso (Florence: Le Monnier)

Vinson, Martha (trans.). 2003.Oration 15: In Praise of the Maccabees’, in St Gregory of Nazianzus: Select Orations, Fathers of the Church (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), pp. 72–84

Neri di Bicci

Saint Felicity and Her Seven Martyred Sons, 1466, Tempera on panel, gold leaf ? (TBC), Church of Santa Felicita, Florence; Sailko / Wikipedia / CC BY 3.0

Maccabean Saints

Commentary by Nerida Newbigin

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In Florence, the mother of the Maccabees becomes Santa Felicita, taking the name of a Roman saint, likewise martyred with her seven sons. The church of Santa Felicita and its convent of Benedictine nuns, located at the southern end of the Ponte Vecchio and thus outside the original city walls, was probably dedicated in its earliest times to the Holy Maccabees. Certainly, their feast day, 1 August, was its principal feast day. 

In 1466, Neri di Bicci was commissioned to paint this altarpiece and predella to make a visual representation that would fuse the two traditions—of the Holy Maccabees and of Santa Felicita and her seven sons—in a single work. The biblical narrative of 2 Maccabees 7 was taken into a new reality. 

In the main panel above, the mother, delicately haloed and bearing the palm of martyrdom and a book, has become Santa Felicita. On either side are her sons, their bodies restored to perfection in heaven. Each has a number. The names and numbers are then inscribed below—Quirilius, Emenarder, Petrus, Secondinus, Rafianus, Aquila, Domitianus. These names were a new accretion to the story, and belonged in fact to other saints commemorated on 1 August, listed immediately after the Maccabees in the influential Martyrology attributed to St Jerome (c.342/47–420 ce). The same names are found in a play entitled Saint Felicity the Jew and Her Seven Martyred Sons, printed around 1490 but possibly contemporary with the panel, whose script welds together the sainted mother, the Maccabean sons, and their rhetorical justifications of their stand.

Nothing in the visual arts can represent the words of the sons; their defiant eloquence as they refuse to submit to the threats and blandishments of the king who offers them life in this world if they break their commitment to the Law. The predella panel below shows a sequence of physical torments, to be read from left to right, from the oldest son to the youngest.

The central scene of the predella shows the mother and her seven sons, with Eleazar on the right hand of Antiochus, and the executioners on the left. Their distinctive gestures remind us that the danse macabre was originally the chorea machabaeorum or ‘dance of the Maccabees’. As in the Byzantine manuscript elsewhere in this exhibition, the pagan tormentors have been literally de-faced in a damnatio memoriae.



Balocchi, Giuseppe. 1828. Illustrazione dell’I[llustre] e R[eale] Chiesa Parrocchiale di S. Felicita che può servire di Guida all’osservatore (Florence: Pagani), pp. 49–50, 135–38

Granger Ryan, William (trans.). 2012. Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1: 364–65 (The Seven Brothers, Sons of Saint Felicity), 2:33 (The Holy Maccabees)

Macabre, n.1, www.oed.com [accessed 27 February 2023]

La festa di sancta Felicita hebrea quando fu martyrizata con septe figluoli. Before 1495. [Florence: Bartolomeo de’ Libri], available at https://data.cerl.org/istc/if00059200

Unknown Byzantine artist

Illustration to Gregory of Nazianzus, Homily 15: In Praise of the Maccabees, 879–83, Illuminated manuscript, 435 x 300 mm, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris; Grec 510, fol. 340r, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Reason over Emotion

Commentary by Nerida Newbigin

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This page illustrating the martyrdom of the Maccabees comes from the first surviving illustrated book produced for a Byzantine emperor. It is a ninth-century manuscript of Gregory of Nazianzus’s Homily 15, ‘In Praise of the Maccabees’, which was delivered in 362 CE. Gregory was responding to an attempt to separate Christianity from its Hellenic and Jewish roots by introducing the cult of the Maccabean martyrs into the Christian calendar (Vinson 2003: 15). 

The nine panels of this introductory folio show: first, Eleazar the priest being cast to the ground before the Emperor Antiochus as the brothers look on, then the martyrdom of the seven brothers, and finally that of the mother—here called Solomonia—who leaps into the fire. Only two of the individual brothers can be identified by their torments; it is the accumulation of torture, not the individual torments, that matters. 

The emperor’s rhetoric of cruelty is a total failure: he cannot persuade those who are divinely inspired, and divine inspiration makes them ever more articulate in their refusal to eat meat. The panels do not directly illustrate the torments described in Gregory’s enormously influential homily, which brings together the narratives of 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees. Rather, it organizes and rationalizes the narrative in a series of simple frames. As Gregory argues, the story of the martyrs is the story of the triumph of reason over passion.

Passions, however, cannot be suppressed in the reader. The page is worn from more than eleven centuries of handling, as the homily was read as part of the liturgy on the feast day of the Maccabees: 1 August. But in addition, the faces of the tormentors have been systematically scraped away, to deny them all recognition alongside the widow’s sons.



Brubaker, Leslie. 1999. Vision and Meaning in Ninth-Century Byzantium: Image as Exegesis in the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus (Cambridge: CUP), pp. 417–20

______. 2017. ‘The Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus’, in A Companion to Byzantine Illustrated Manuscripts, ed. by Vasiliki Tsamakda (Leiden: Brill), pp. 351–65

Vinson, Martha. 1994. ‘Gregory Nazianzen’s Homily 15 and the Genesis of the Christian Cult of the Maccabean Martyrs’, Byzantion, 6: 166–92

______ (trans.). 2003. ‘Oration 15: In Praise of the Maccabees’, in St Gregory of Nazianzus: Select Orations, Fathers of the Church (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), pp. 72–84

Antonio Ciseri :

The Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees, 1857–63 , Oil on Canvas

Neri di Bicci :

Saint Felicity and Her Seven Martyred Sons, 1466 , Tempera on panel, gold leaf ? (TBC)

Unknown Byzantine artist :

Illustration to Gregory of Nazianzus, Homily 15: In Praise of the Maccabees, 879–83 , Illuminated manuscript

Holy Maccabees, Jewish Saints

Comparative commentary by Nerida Newbigin

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Even though the Maccabean martyrs cannot officially be saints because they died before Christ was born, they have been regarded as worthy of emulation for their unswerving devotion to the ways of their fathers. The three images in this exhibition show a process of cultural appropriation as the Holy Maccabees are incorporated into the Christian tradition and become saint-like. 

The story of the Hebrew widow and her seven sons, who choose martyrdom at the hands of Emperor Antiochus rather than breach their covenant with God by eating pork, comes from 2 Maccabees. It is retold, in an emotionally embellished version, in 4 Maccabees. Jerome included 2 Maccabees among the deuterocanonical works ‘for the edification of the people’, while 4 Maccabees had little presence in the Western Church (though it is now available in the NRSV). 

The widow and her sons have served as archetypes in various ways. The widow who willingly sacrifices her sons in this world to preserve them for eternal life in the next is the archetype for all mothers in times of war, and (like Mary) she offers up her offspring for a higher good. The brutality of their martyrdom is the catalyst for political uprising in the Maccabean Revolt and the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem. From the earliest Christian commentators, the widow and her sons were seen as archetypes of the Christian martyrs, born through death into eternal life. The sons, moreover, are behavioural models for children, adolescents, and young men: they obey the Law, and they exercise rational thought and eloquent argument in defiance of their emotions—above all fear of pain. Like Daniel, and like the three youths in the fiery furnace, the Maccabean Martyrs were examples of youthful faith and virtue.

The text of 2 Maccabees 7 presents in detail the reasoned response of the martyrs to the king’s order to eat meat. They reply ‘in their own tongue’ (v.8; see also vv.21, 27), and articulate their acceptance of death in the hope of eternal life. The text thus operates in three rhetorical ‘languages’: the visual spectacle of horror as a means of persuasion; the words of Antiochus, speaking in his language; and the words of the mother and her sons, in the language they share with God and with Moses.

The visual commentary offered here goes well beyond the text provided by 2 Maccabees 7, largely because that text itself entered immediately into a process of rewriting, re-interpreting, embellishment, and repurposing. The purpose of the images discussed here is to represent the Seven Maccabees, in as much narrative detail as possible, to fit a series of contexts.

The Maccabean martyrs were contested territory. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus made a counterclaim to the Jewish tradition that cast them as a collective symbol of Judaism itself, and accorded them the veneration traditionally awarded to Christian martyrs. In his commentary, they embody the triumph of reason over emotion (Vinson 2003: 72–84). The nine-panel illustration that precedes his homily embodies his thesis: it is a statement, enumeration, and conclusion of the story, focusing on its rational symmetry, and not on the emotive detail of each torment.

In fifteenth-century Florence, the nuns of Santa Felicita, who honoured their patron St Felicita on the feast day of the Maccabean Martyrs, commissioned an altarpiece that would consolidate the two into one, attributing to the Jewish martyrs all the qualities and powers of a Christian saint.

In the nineteenth century, at the height of Romanticism and growing Italian nationalism, Antonio Ciseri’s altarpiece of the Holy Maccabees, also in Santa Felicita, returns the martyrs to their pre-Christian origins. The focus is on the suffering mother, while the holiness of her steadfast sons is represented by the beauty of their dead bodies.



Vinson, Martha (trans.). 2003. ‘Oration 15: In Praise of the Maccabees’, in St Gregory of Nazianzus: Select Orations, Fathers of the Church (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), pp. 72–84

2 Maccabees 7

Revised Standard Version

The Martyrdom of Seven Brothers

7 It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. 2One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.”

3 The king fell into a rage, and gave orders that pans and caldrons be heated. 4These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. 5When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan. The smoke from the pan spread widely, but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, 6“The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song which bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, ‘And he will have compassion on his servants.’ ”

7 After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair, and asked him, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?” 8He replied in the language of his fathers, and said to them, “No.” Therefore he in turn underwent tortures as the first brother had done. 9And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.”

10 After him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, 11and said nobly, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.” 12As a result the king himself and those with him were astonished at the young man’s spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing.

13 When he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. 14And when he was near death, he said, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!”

15 Next they brought forward the fifth and maltreated him. 16But he looked at the king, and said, “Because you have authority among men, mortal though you are, you do what you please. But do not think that God has forsaken our people. 17Keep on, and see how his mighty power will torture you and your descendants!”

18 After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, “Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened. 19But do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!”

20 The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Though she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. 21She encouraged each of them in the language of their fathers. Filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, 22“I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. 23Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”

24 Antiʹochus felt that he was being treated with contempt, and he was suspicious of her reproachful tone. The youngest brother being still alive, Antiʹochus not only appealed to him in words, but promised with oaths that he would make him rich and enviable if he would turn from the ways of his fathers, and that he would take him for his friend and entrust him with public affairs. 25Since the young man would not listen to him at all, the king called the mother to him and urged her to advise the youth to save himself. 26After much urging on his part, she undertook to persuade her son. 27But, leaning close to him, she spoke in their native tongue as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: “My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. 28I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. 29Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.”

30 While she was still speaking, the young man said, “What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our fathers through Moses. 31But you, who have contrived all sorts of evil against the Hebrews, will certainly not escape the hands of God. 32For we are suffering because of our own sins. 33And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. 34But you, unholy wretch, you most defiled of all men, do not be elated in vain and puffed up by uncertain hopes, when you raise your hand against the children of heaven. 35You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty, all-seeing God. 36For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. 37I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, 38and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

39 The king fell into a rage, and handled him worse than the others, being exasperated at his scorn. 40So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord.

41 Last of all, the mother died, after her sons.

42 Let this be enough, then, about the eating of sacrifices and the extreme tortures.