Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Holy Innocents – Nearly Forgotten Baby Martyrs

Master of Death, Scenes from the Infancy of Jesus
Histoire de la Bible et de l'Assomption de Notre-Dame
French (Paris), 1390-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M526, fol. 31r
When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”

Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.

Matthew 2:13-18 (Gospel for the feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs, December 28)

Enameled Chasse with Scenes of the Presentation
and the Massacre of the Innocents
French, 1190-1210
Paris, Musee du Louvre
In our time the secular celebration of Christmas, which begins to wind down immediately after Christmas Day and is definitely over by January 1, is a week of vacation, of partying and shopping for bargains.  Instead, the Church turns our attention in the days after Christmas to teaching us something else, that Christmas is not a happy fairy tale, although there is a happy ending in the Resurrection.  During the octave of Christmas (the time between Christmas Day and the feast of Mary, Mother of God on January 1) the Church reminds us that faith in the Child born in Bethlehem has consequences.   She invites us to consider some of those martyrs who have surrendered their lives in devotion to Christ.  On December 26th the Church celebrates the feast of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, killed shortly after the Pentecost, while the Church was still a small group of disciples in Jerusalem.   On the 27th we celebrate the feast day of the Evangelist John, who survived martyrdom to die of old age.  On December 29th we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Becket, murdered in his own cathedral because of a dispute with King Henry II over the proper roles of Church and State.  And on December 28th the Church celebrates the feast of the very first martyrs, the baby boys of Bethlehem, killed at the order of Herod the Great in his attempt to kill a potential rival.

Masssacre of the Innocents
Italian, 14th Century
Subiaco, Church of San Benedetto, Scala Santa

The story of the killing of the baby boys from Bethlehem, which is found in the Gospel of Matthew, is a dark reversal of the joy of the birth of Jesus.  Probably for this reason, our contemporary celebrations for Christmas ignore it.  We do not want to think about the dark side of anything and certainly NOT at Christmas, which we are told from every side, is about Joy, Love, Peace!  This view, that Darkness has no place during the “holidays” has become so prevalent in our time that the majority of people no longer even remember this event.   But it was not always so. 

From sometime in the fifth century the Church has celebrated a special feast in honor of these boys.  The feast of the Holy Innocents was once an important day within the octave of Christmas, with its own special prayers, and with some special events.  And it was a frequent subject in art from the early middle ages till the dawn of the 20th century. 1
Massacre of the Innocents
from  Purpur Evangeliary
German, 800-825
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 23631, fol. 49

Nearly all the medieval images of the Massacre of the Innocents include the figure of Herod, giving the command to his soldiers, or watching from his throne as they go about their ghastly work.  The soldiers stab and hack at the little bodies, and frequently there are severed limbs and heads in a pile at their feet.  In one instance, a soldier is shown biting into the dying child in his hands.
Massacre of the Innocents
Evangeliary Cover (detail)
French (Metz), mid-9th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9393, Cover





















Flight into Egypt and Massacre of the Innocents
from the Winchester Psalter
English (Anglo-Norman), mid-12th-2nd half of 13th Century
London, British Library
MS Cotton Nero C IV, fol. 14r
At the bottom right a soldier may be seen biting
into a child as he cuts into its flesh and as the mother
attempts to save it.  














Massacre of the Innocents
from the Huntingfield Psalter
English (Oxford), 1212-1220
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M43, fol. 20r






















Soissons Workshop, Massacre of the Innocents
from a Psalter
French (Paris). 1229-1246
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M283, fol. 11r

Massacre of the Innocents
from Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), 1310-1320
London, British Librry
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol.132























Massacre of the Innocents
Byzantine, 1315-1321
Istanbul, Saint Savior in Chora

Master of the Roman de Fauvel, Massacre of the Innocents
from Speculum historiale by Vincentius Bellovacensis
French (Paris), 1333-1334
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 316, fol. 306













Richard de Montbaston, Massacre of the Innocents
from  Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), 1348
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 241, fol. 25v




















Jean le Noir and Collaborators, Massacre of the Innocents
from Breviary of Charles V
French (Paris), 1364-1370
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1052, fol. 308


Massacre of the Innocents
from a Book of HoursFrench (Paris), 1375-1400
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M229, fol. 62v



































Master of the Beaufort Saints, Massacre of the Innocents
from a Book of Hours
Dutch, 1405-1425
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1073, fol. 70v


Gentile da Fabriano, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, c.1425
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi



















Herod Orders the Massacre
from a Book of Hours
French (Burgundy), 1480-1495
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M26, fol.124r

Herod Orders the Massacre, with the
Flight into Egypt
from a Book of Hours
French (Paris), 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H5, fol. 69r























Massacre of the Innocents
from a Prayer Book
French (Paris), 1485-1495
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H3, fol. 182v





Jean Bourdichon, Massacre of the Innocents
from Hours of Frederic of Aragon
French (Tours), 1501-1504
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10532, fol. 168




























Also present in most, though not all cases are the mothers.  Some of them try to defend their children:  pleading with the soldiers, pushing at them, attempting to pull their babies out of the grasp of the soldiers, trying to intercept their blows, endeavoring to shield their infants from the cruel blades.

Master Kerald, Massacre of the Innocents
from Codex Egberti
German, mid-10th Century
Trier, Stadtbibliothek, fol. 15v


Massacre of the Innocents
from the Troparium Aeduense
French (Autun), 996-1024
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 1169, fol. 11

























Massacre of the Innocents
from Gospel Book of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c.1000
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453, fol 28





Massacre of the Innocents
St. Alban's Psalter (Psalter of Christina of Markyate)
English, Abbey of St. Alban's, First half 12th Century
Hildesheim Dombibliothek
MS St. God. 1, fol. 30
























Massacre of the Innocents
from the Vita Christi
English (York), 1190
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ms. 101, fol. 46v

Massacre of the Innocents
from Psalter-Hours of Guiluys de Boisleux
French (Arras), 1246-1260
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M730, fol.12v






















Massacre of the Innocents
from Psalter-Hours of Yolande of Soissons
French, 1280-1299
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M729, fol. 296v

Massacre of the Innocents
from a Psalter
Belgian (Liege), 1285-1310
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M155, fol.50r























Massacre of the Innocents
from Psalter-Hours
French (Therouanne), 1260-1270
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M97, fol. 14v
Massacre of the Innocents
from a Bible moralisee
Italian (Naples), ca. 1350
Paris, bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 9561, fol. 138
























Massacre of the Innocents
German, 15th Century
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Massacre of the Innocents
from a Book of Hours
French, 1440-1445
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M157, fol. 180r

















Follower of Willem Vrelant, Massacre of the Innocents
from a Book of Hours
Belgian (Tournai), 1465-1475
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M251, fol. 117v









Master of Edward IV, Massacre of the Innocents
from a Book of Hours
Flemish (Bruges), 1465-1480
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS Ww31, fol. 80v






















Jacques de Besancon, Massacre of the Innocents
from Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), 1480-1490
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 244, fol. 27v


Master of Edward IV, Massacre of the Innocents
from a Book of Hours
Belgian (Ghent), 1480-1490
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M278, fol. 87v











Jean Poyer, Massacre of the Innocents
from Hours of Henry VIII
French (Tours), 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H8, fol. 69v

Master Henri
from Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Belgian (Hainaut), 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 24





In one memorable image a mother actually grasps the blade of the sword that is raised to strike at her child, while Herod looks on and another mother cradles the head of her dead baby, whose body lies on the ground beneath the struggling soldier and mother.













Massacre of the Innocents and Flight into Egypt
French, c. 1145
Chartres, Cathedral, West Portal


And the mothers mourn over their dead children:  pulling at their hair, raising their hands to heaven, shrieking with open mouths.  In a memorable image from the west portal of Chartres cathedral, a distraught mother lifts the corpse of her baby from the ground to kiss his face as the struggle continues around her.  The emotions are very real, even in what may look to our eyes as primitive or abstract figures. 2




Inside Chartres too, the subject of the Massacre of the Innocents has a privileged place, taking up the entire central width of one of the famed stained glass window with three panels.  In one of these a mother does the same as on the portal, kneeling down to be near her dead baby.

Herod Orders the Massacre
French, 12th Century
Chartres, Cathedral

Massacre of the Innocents
French, 12th Century
Chartres, Cathedral


















Massacre of the Innocents
French, 12th Century
Chartres, Cathedral


Master of the Dresden Prayerbook
Massacre of the Innocents
from a Book of HoursFlemish (Bruges), 1470-1490
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1077, fol. 94v 

Master of the Dresden Hours, Massacre of the Innocents
from the Crohin-La Fontaine Hours
Flemish (Bruges), 1480-1485
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ms. 23, fol. 106v























Sano di Pietro, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, ca.1470
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Flight into Egypt and Massacre of the Innocents
from Psalter of S. Louis and Blanche of Castille
French (Paris), ca. 1225
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 1186, fol. 19v

There are so many medieval images of this subject, often coupled with other images from the Nativity story in the Gospels, that it may reflect the sufferings of ordinary people in an era when wars, even if small scale, could devastate the children of the area in which they were fought, and in which disease accounted for the vast majority of childhood deaths.  The death of children was a frequent fact of life and we may assume that the loss of any child caused as much grief to parents in the twelfth century as it does in the twenty-first.


Flight into Egypt and Massacre of the Innocents
from a Psalter
French (Paris), 1228-1234
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M153, fol. 17r

















Adoration of the Magi and Massacre of the Innocents
from a Psalter
French (Paris), mid-13th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10434, fol. 14















Scenes from the Infancy of Christ
Top: Presentation in the Temple and Flight into Egypt
Bottom:  The Angel Warning the Magi and
Massacre of the Innocents
from a Psalter
French (Paris), ca.1270
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M101, fol. 16v














Adoration of the Magi and Massacre of the Innocents
from a Book of Hours
French (Rouen), Second half of the 15th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 3134, fol. 57v


















Robinet Testard, Flight into Egypt 
and Massacre of the Innocents
from a Book of Hours
French (Poitiers), 1470-1480
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1001, fol. 57r
























As artistic skills developed, Herod became a less frequent participant in these scenes, although the subject remained as popular as ever.  Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods focused more frequently on the extreme violence of the scene, and on the confrontations between the soldiers and the mothers.  The living children also become more active, trying to flee, to hide or to ward off the blows that are aimed at them.  The development of scientific perspective added a new element of realism to these images.

Giovanni Pisano, Massacre of the Innocents (detail)
Italian, 1301
Pistoia, Church of Sant'Andrea

Giotto, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel






































Duccio, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo



Giotto, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1315-1320
Assisi. Basilica of San Francesco. Lower Church, North Transept






































Andrea di Bartolo, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1380s
Baltimore, Walters Museum of Art





























Master of the Ashmolean Predella, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1380-1385
Fiesole, Museo Bandini


Hans Strigel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents
German, c.1450
Zell, Catholic Church of Saint Bartholemew






















Fra Angelico, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1451-1452
Florence, Museo di San Marco
Hans Memling, Massacre of the Innocents (detail)
German, c.1480
Munich, Alte Pinakotek


Matteo di Giovanni, Massacre of the Innocents
Ittalian, 1482
Siena, Church of Sant'Agostino


















Benvenuto di Giovanni di Meo del Guasta
Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1483
Avignon, Musee du Petit Palais




















Domenico Ghirlandaio, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1485-1490
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Cappella Tornabuoni

Massacre of the Innocents
French enamel work, 16th Century
Ecouen, Musee national de la Renaissance

Massacre of the Innocents
Netherlandish School, 16th Century
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery
























Ludovico Mazzolino, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1510-1530
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


Altobello Melone, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1517
Cremona, Cathedral































Giovanni Angelo del Maino
Itallian, c.1520
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts




Everhard Rensig and Gerhard Remisch
Massacre of the Innocents
German (Lower Rhine), c.1522-1526
London, Victoria and Albert Museum




































Majolica Bowl with Massacre of the Innocents
Italian (Castel Durante), 1525
St. Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum






Simon Bening, Massacre of the Innocents
from the Beatty Rosary
Flemish, c. 1530
Dublin, Chester Beatty Library
MS W99




















Daniele da Volterra, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, c. 1555
Rome, Church of Santissima Trinita dei Monti

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents
Flemish, 1575-1600
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum




































Tintoretto, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1582-1587
Venice, Scuola Grande di San Rocco



Cornelis Van Haarlem, Massacre of the Innocents
Dutch, 1590
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum




























Guido Reni, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1611
Bologna, Pinocoteca Nazionale






Nicolas Poussin, Massacre of the Innocents
French, 1631-1632
Chantilly, Musee Conde


















Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents
Flemish, c.1637
Munich, Alte Pinakothek
Sebastien Bourdon, Massacre of the Innocents
French, 1640s
St. Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum

Charles Le Brun, Massacre of the Innocents
French, c.1647
London, Dulwich Picture Gallery


























Valerio Castello, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, c. 1650-1655
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Luca Giordano, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1670s
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum





























Alessandro Magnasco, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1715-1740
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


Gaspare Diziani, Massacre of the Innocents
Italian, 1733

Venice, Church of  Santo Stafano

In the nineteenth century the focus shifted slightly to record the reactions of individual mothers to events. These women try to hide, or to fight with the aggressors or they mourn over their dead child.

Francois-Joseph Navez, Massacre of the Innocents
French, 1824
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Leon Cogniet, Massacre of the Innocents
French, 1824
Rennes, Musee des Beaux-Arts
Joseph Noel Paton. Massacre pf the Innocents
English, c.1880
Paisley, Paisley Museum and Art Galleries
James Tissot, Massacre of the Innocents
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

























Only towards the end of the century do we get a hint of a different interpretation of the story.  This is William Holman Hunt’s rather odd take on the story.  In his picture “The Triumph of the Innocents” the souls of the recently dead babies accompany the Holy Family as it flees to Egypt.
William Holman Hunt, The Triumph of the Innocents
English, c.1883-1884
London, Tate Britain
Some have already sprouted haloes, others wear crowns of roses and some carry flowers as well.  One boy at the right of the picture holds an olive branch.  Meanwhile, the Child for whom they died blesses them with a sheaf of wheat in His hand, reminder of the Eucharist.

In the twentieth century one artist, the Franco-American known as Arman (born Armand Fernandez in France) created a series of images called “Massacre des Innocents”.  These works, which he called “accumulations” and in which he crammed doll body parts into specially constructed boxes, are uncomfortably realistic.
Arman (Armand Fernandez)
Massacre des Innocents II
from Accumulations series
French-American, 1961
Copyright Estate of the Artist


Arman_(Armand Fernandez), Massacre des Innocents
French-American, 1961
Paris, Galerie Natalie Seroussi

























Shorn of the context provided by the mothers and the soldiers these “accumulations” suggest the grisly products of late term abortions or the results of bombings and are all too real reminders of the reality of the kind of “kindermorder”3 in which modern times perpetuates the Massacre of the Innocents.

So, in a period in which we have just recently seen the effects of bombing on the littlest citizens of Aleppo, this feast offers us a reminder that the same cruelty that would order the death of all the children under two in one village out of fear of one child only is still alive and active today.

© M. Duffy, 2016
______________________________________________________________________


  1.       Holweck, Frederick. "Holy Innocents." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 27 Dec. 2016 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07419a.htm
  2.       I am indebted to the following article for pointing out the figures on the capitals at Chartres. Kathleen Nolan, "Ploratus Et Ululatus": The Mothers in The Massacre of the Innocents at Chartres Cathedral”, Studies in Iconography, Vol. 17 (1996), pp. 95-141.
  3.       Meaning “child murder”. This is the partial title in German of the Massacre of the Innocents, which is called Die Bethlehmische kindermord.

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