The Massacre of the Innocents, an episode found in Matthew’s infancy narrative (2:16–18), became a frequent subject for Christian preachers, poets, and artists around the late fourth century and into the modern period. The story also appealed to artists through the centuries.
It features a despotic ruler, Herod the Great, who—fearing that his rule may be threatened—orders the slaughter of all children born in Bethlehem in the prior two years. Thus, the tale centres on the evil acts of a paranoid ruler and the anguished parents whose innocent children are sacrificed to his wicked obsession. It is also thematically connected to the exodus story of the Passover (Exodus 12–14), and prompts the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt (Matthew 2:13–15).
Although Matthew’s Gospel is the only New Testament source for the episode, it appears also in the apocryphal Protevangelium of James (22), which adds that when Elizabeth heard that Herod was seeking to kill the children, she fled with her son John and found shelter in a miraculously opened mountain crag. This detail may have been incorporated into the fifth-century mosaic panel in Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore and perhaps also in Nicolas Poussin’s seventeenth-century painting.
Comparing the literary treatment of the Massacre alongside its visual depictions accords an analysis of the differences between verbal and visual renderings of a famous story. One of the earliest textual treatments comes from the work of the Christian poet Prudentius (c.348–413 CE) born in the Roman province of Tarraconensis (now Northern Spain). In a hymn dedicated to the Feast of the Epiphany, the poet recounts the story of the Holy Innocents and describes Herod ordering his sword-wielding soldiers to steep cradles in blood and stain mothers’ breasts with the blood of their children.
A second early text, a sermon of Basil of Seleucia (c.450 CE), was widely known throughout antiquity and into the early modern era. Here the preacher imagines himself as a spectator of the event. Focusing his attention on the guards’ violence and the mothers’ terror, he frames the tale as a battle between frantic women and vicious men. Herod is cast as an evil commander who urges his soldiers to terrible acts. Weeping mothers search out the scattered and broken bodies of their infants, kissing them and mixing tears and milky breasts with blood and brains.
Other literary treatments of the story include a sixth-century kontakion of Romanos the Melodos, an eighth-century homily by John of Euboea, and the famous seventeenth-century poem by Giovanni Battista Marino, La Strage degli Innocenti (The Slaughter of the Innocents). Historians generally agree all these different literary works influenced the visual representation of the story of the Massacre, although details sometimes do not align. For example, in the Berlin ivory, the soldier throws the child down on the ground, rather than using a sword, as in Prudentius’s poem. This detail, however, appears in the later work of Marino, who describes an infant being swung around and hurled against a wall before being struck by the blade. By contrast, Basil’s sermon describes Herod’s throne as golden and gem-studded, a detail that appears on the Santa Maria Maggiore mosaic. This raises the long-standing question of whether the influence of texts and images on each other is always one way.
Later artistic renderings than the ivory and the mosaic in this exhibition include a detail in the Syriac Rabbula (or Rabula) Gospels (c.586 CE), an eleventh-century icon at the Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, and part of the fourteenth-century mosaics at Constantinople’s Chora Monastery (Kariye Camii). The Chora image includes the scene of Elizabeth’s escape with the infant John, as the Santa Maria Maggiore mosaic seems also to do.
As evident by the striking differences between the Berlin ivory and the Santa Maria Maggiore mosaic (which appeared around the same time), artists imaginatively elaborated the brief story in the Gospel in order to create a fully realized composition. Whether they chose either to emphasize the horror of the story or to downplay it may be due to the context or setting of the work or the artist’s intent. This is particularly true of Poussin’s composition. While Poussin was almost certainly influenced by Marino’s poem, he did not feel obliged to follow it slavishly. Nevertheless, his painting exemplified Marino’s aim to present a horrific scene with superb beauty.
Notwithstanding the variety in visual interpretations of this episode, Herod has remained constant as a paradigm of the paranoid despot. Meanwhile his massacred children are commemorated as the Holy Innocents and the first martyrs for the faith. In the words of Augustine of Hippo, ‘when the lion of heaven was born, the little fox of the earth was troubled … A divine infant came, and infants went to God’ (Sermon 375).
Cropper, Elizabeth. 1991. ‘The Petrifying Art: Marino's Poetry and Caravaggio’, Metropolitan Museum Journal, 26: 193–212
———. and Charles Dempsey. 1996. Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 253–78
Fogliadini, Emanuela. 2019. ‘The Massacre of Innocents: Representing the Biblical Suffering in the Mosaics of Chora’, Ikon: Journal of Iconographic Studies, 12: 19-28
Maguire, Henry. 1996. Art and Eloquence in Byzantium (Princeton: Princeton University Press) pp. 25–34, 118–21
Rotelle, John E. (ed.), Edmund Hill (trans.). 1995. The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, III/10, Sermons 341-400 (New York City Press: New York), pp. 328–29
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.”