Massacre of the Innocents, mosaic on the triumphal arch of the nave by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Massacre of the Innocents, mosaic on the triumphal arch of the nave, 5th century, Mosaic, Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, Ivan Vdovin / Alamy Stock Photo

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‘Flee from the wrath to come’

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Shortly after the Council of Ephesus formally awarded the title Theotokos (Mother of God) to the Virgin Mary, Pope Sixtus III (432–40 CE) commissioned a church in Rome to her, Santa Maria Maggiore. Today its fifth-century mosaic programme remains one of the oldest in the world and includes a cycle of nave mosaics showing scenes from the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus and a triumphal arch that displays episodes from the infancy of Christ according to both Matthew and Luke: the Annunciation, the Massacre of the Innocents, the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight to Egypt, and the Presentation in the Temple.

The image of the Massacre of the Innocents appears in the spandrel at the lower left side of this mosaic, just below the scene of the Adoration of the Magi and directly across the arch from a depiction of the Magi appearing before King Herod. Here Herod, on the left, sits on a gold and gem-studded throne and is surrounded by his bodyguards. He is dressed in Roman military garb and he has a halo indicating power and authority. He looks directly at one of the guards and gestures as if commanding him to remove a child from his mother’s arms. At the right, a crowd of other women holding their children close to them include one mother turning away as if to flee with her child. She may have been intended to be identified as Elizabeth with the infant John the Baptist.

This image differs from most other renderings of the story in its omission of the violent act of child-murder. The soldier who reaches to take the child from its mother’s arms glances back at Herod as if anxious to hear the order rescinded. The mothers grasping their children to their bosoms appear not to understand what is about to happen. Only one turns away.



Kötzsche-Breitenbruck, Lieselotte. 1968–69. ‘Zur Ikonographie des bethelemitischen Kindermordes in der frühchristlichen Kunst’, Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum, 11–12: 104–15

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