By Ben Lima

The Massacre of the Innocents is a test of faith. Taking place in the midst of the Christmas story, Herod the Great’s vain attempt to do away with the threat to his reign by killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem is an unavoidable obstacle to the sentimentalization of Christ’s birth — not only do bad things happen to good people, but the very worst things happen to the very least deserving people. After witnessing such an act, can the survivors — can mothers weeping for their dead children — look on through the deepest possible pain and say, “God is enough”?

Conviction in that faith — the confidence that even such barbarity can be turned in the end toward the good (Gen. 50:20) — helps explain the lengthy tradition of depicting the massacre in art. Modern viewers accustomed to a steady stream of sensationalistic horror movies might be tempted to see such artworks as purely shocking spectacles, but that would be a mistake. Instead, when artists (along with poets) expand Matthew’s three brief verses (one for the massacre, two for its interpretation) into elaborate imaginative complexes, they are trying to explore the depths of the mystery: that as sorrow turns to joy, the “infant Martyr flowers, cut off in life’s first dawning hours … beneath the Altar’s Heav’nly ray, With Martyr-palms and crowns ye play!”

Although Matthew’s account is brief, the Christian tradition, beginning with Byzantine homilists and artists, expanded Matthew’s brief report into “a fully developed description.” This can be understood by means of the rhetorical term ekphrasis, simply defined as a detailed description intended to vividly bring to mind an absent subject. For example, as Henry Maguire observes, in the influential fifth-century sermon by Basil, Archbishop of Seleucia, “the Gospel’s single word ‘destroyed’ becomes a long catalogue of cruelties.” In hearing or seeing an unbearably drawn-out depiction of such slaughter, a congregation is forced to cope with the intrusion of such images into its imagination, and to see whether the test of faith can be met.

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Ekphrastic accounts of the massacre could be quite lengthy indeed. In Prudentius’s fourth-century Hymn for the Epiphany, 14 four-line stanzas are devoted to describing the killing. (“O horrid sight! the tender bones / Are dashed against the jaggèd stones” … and so forth.) Similarly, Romanos the Melodist’s sixth-century kontaktion on the massacre consisted of 17 strophes of several lines each. The kontaktion, described by J.H. Barkhuizen as “in essence a verse homily or sung sermon,” placed speeches in the mouths of its characters “as if they were present in the congregation” (emphasis in original), giving them “a hitherto unknown psychological depth.” Seeing and hearing the massacre acted out by the characters provided an “extraordinary immediacy for the listener.”

In the case of the Innocents, Romanos’s kontaktion expanded the action into three parts: a prelude (Herod summons his army), the massacre proper, and its aftermath. Sarah Gador-Whyte describes Romanos’s kontaktion as an “emotional preaching” in which “there is no split between poetry and theology.” As a kind of ekphrastic sermon, it exemplifies the quality of enargeia, or “vividness,” which, by making listeners “see” with their minds’ eye, creates a strong emotional connection. Hearing the preacher sing about “the sacred heads of the infants / holding on to the nipples / by the teeth in their mouths,” would arouse the listeners’ passions.

As late as the 17th century, Giambattista Marino’s wildly popular poem, which inspired Poussin’s painting on the subject, ran to over 100 pages in the 1675 English translation. Marino portrays a climactic confrontation between a mother and a marauding soldier: “But what can Beauty against Fury do? His naked sword straight pierc’d the Infant’s breast; Who on th’Assassin, as he struck him through, Smiles, and cries Pappa, as by him caress’d.”

While the technique of ekphrasis served to compel the audience’s attention, the framework of typological interpretation served to make the massacre present again and again through the ebb and flow of history. In using typology, interpreters have simply followed the lead of Matthew’s gospel itself, where “Rachel weeping for her children” is already a citation of Jeremiah’s typological reading of Genesis. Rachel could reappear in many guises, and there was no shortage of occasions for her to do so. The sack of Constantinople by Latin Crusaders in 1204 provided an anxious background for the mosaics at Chora Monastery. After the invading Ottomans killed 813 hostages in the city of Otranto in 1480, the Sienese painter Matteo di Giovanni modeled his cruel Herod on Sultan Mehmed, in both his tempera painting and his design for the cathedral’s inlaid marble floor.

Amidst the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish Empire, which saw brutally repressive measures taken against the Flemish population by Spanish troops, Pieter Bruegel created a composition set in a Netherlandish village. (In related versions, the leader of the marauding troops resembles the Duke of Alva, the Spanish governor renowned for his severity. But when Bruegel’s painting eventually came into the collection of a later Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II objected to the depiction of atrocities being committed by troops under his own banner, and had them painted over, so that, for example, one woman is seen standing over a pile of hams and cheeses, instead of a dead baby.) Nearby in Antwerp, Rubens painted a version shortly following a truce in the same, eighty-year-long conflict. The type of the marauding soldier has never threatened to become obsolete, down to the present day.

In depicting the massacre as a battle scene, artists have both employed and redeployed traditional military imagery. While the soldiers might be in some sense engaged in a battle, and depicted accordingly, their attack on defenseless infants turns the “battle” into a grotesque parody, revealing the true monstrosity of the rulers of this world. Thus, artistic depictions of the massacre as a battle scene, whether by Giovanni Pisano, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Peter Paul Rubens, or Antoni Gaudí, tend to subvert and destabilize the classical martial rhetoric upon which they draw.

The most emotionally arresting compositions, however, emphasize not the soldiers, but a group of individuals not named or described by Matthew (except implicitly as antitypes of Rachel): the mothers of Bethlehem and their reactions, in the words of Shakespeare’s Henry V: “The mad mothers with their howls confused do break the clouds.” The version by Nicolas Poussin, with its tightly interlocking figures of soldier, mother, and baby, places mom’s horrified face at its absolute center. (For the 20th-century painter Francis Bacon, determined to isolate and detach the experience of suffering from its biblical context, Poussin’s was “probably the best human cry ever painted.” Although Bacon made many “scream paintings” over the years, his despair contained no hint of redemption.)

Not every painter has tried to communicate the full breadth and depth of the mothers’ pain. In Giotto’s version, there is a tension between the stoical postures of the crowd and the anguish on their faces. (John Ruskin, deeply averse to any suggestion of uncontrolled passion, praised Giotto for his restraint but complained that the massacre “ought never to have been made the subject of painting at all.”) Guido Reni combines awful screams with a certain classical balance. Up through the 19th century, painters like Léon Cogniet, Angelo Visconti, and Carlo Arrienti isolated individual mothers, heroically protecting their children, somewhat softening the horror of the wholesale slaughter.

Finally, as the poet Charles Péguy observed, the innocents suffered and died as substitutes for Herod’s intended victim. Péguy wrote, “God says … By a sort of equipoise those Innocents paid for my Son. … They were taken for him. They were massacred for him. In his stead. In his place.” Despite the whole tradition that has seen such a death as inspiring and ennobling, leading to the martyr’s palm and crown, relatively few artists have tried to show the innocents in their subsequent exalted state. An exception is William Holman Hunt’s wild 1883-84 canvas, in which a great cloud of infants accompanies the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt, followed by “airy globes” that indicate “the streams of eternal life.” Gazing at Hunt’s vision, as the light starts to shine over the heads of the rejoicing child martyrs, is an encouragement to neither ignore the world’s worst atrocities, nor to rationalize or explain them away, but simply to stand firm in faith. Rachel’s weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

About The Author

Dr. Ben Lima is an art historian and critic, and a parishioner at the Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.

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