The Holy Innocents: The Iconography

In Bethlehem of Judea, the natal day Not their birthday but the day they died and were "born again" into Heaven of the Holy Innocent Martyrs, who were killed for Christ by King Herod. – Roman Martyrology for December 28

The Holy Innocents are the children executed at Herod's order in Matthew 2:16-18. Liturgies commemorated them as martyrs as early as the 5th century,1 and their murder is found in art as early as the 4th (first picture at right).

HEROD

Some images of the Holy Innocents depict the slaughter alone (example), but more often Herod is prominently featured – crowned, sitting enthroned on a dais, and pointing with his right hand to the slaughter he has ordered, as in the picture above. The scepter in that picture is also seen in some other Holy Innocents images. None of these symbols are in Matthew, but they do help the viewer recognize the king for who he is. Physical thrones serve the same purpose in the English miracle plays.2

THE OTHER FIGURES

Herod is alone in the painting above, but more often he has advisers and/or soldiers standing with him to observe the slaughter. The scene can also include women of the court. In this example they stand with him high above the fray. In this one they stand calmly by in their rich mantles and crowns, one of them holding her own child safe in her arms. Another figure that can be included is the prophet Jeremiah, as in the second picture at right. Matthew says that the massacre fulfills the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:15, "A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not." The artists use raised arms and various other gestures to express the women's grief. The dead and dying children are usually naked.

THE HORROR

In the earliest images the soldiers kill the babies by dashing them to the ground (example), but in medieval examples they almost always use swords or spears. Swords are more common than spears, being more easily "read" in an image, but spears are the weapon of choice in the English miracle plays and in some images. In the Chester play soldiers speak of making babies "hop" on their spears, which may have been inspired by images such as this miniature.3 Few images spare the blood and horror, but the one at Tro­gir Cathedral substitutes a visual meto­ny­my: we see only the souls of the innocents, pictured as swaddled babies carried aloft by angels.

THE ESCAPEES

In scripture Jesus escaped the slaughter because St. Joseph had been warned in a dream to take him to Egypt. Some images of the slaughter put the escaping family in the background (example).

The infant John the Baptist also escaped the massacre. The Protevangelium of James (¶¶ 22b-23) explains that His mother Elizabeth hid with him in a mountain cave. When his father Zacharias refused to reveal the child's location, Herod had him killed. The episode is pictured mostly in Orthodox images (example).

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2020-10-19.

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1 Schiller, I, 114.

2 In line 73 of the Chester play the use of a throne for Herod is indicated by Preco's line, Haile comly kinge, sitting in see, "see" being the word for "throne." Herod himself refers to his throne in line 129 of the N-Town play.

3 In the Chester "Slaughter of the Innocents" (Deimling, I, 186-205)," each knight declares that his victims must hopp upon my spere (323-24 and 362). In the N-Town play First Soldier says, Upon my spere / A gerle I bere ("I carry a child on my spear," lines 109-110). Compare the York play (Davidson, 130-38), where a knyght uppon his knyffe / Hath slayne my sone so swete – the word knyffe, which makes no sense with the word "upon," may have been chosen for the alliteration. One of the Chester soldiers also boasts about his spear at line 195, and a marginal note at line 344 directs a soldier to "transfix the boy" with his spear. Herod himself wields a spear in line 12 of the N-Town play.

SHOWN ABOVE:
Sano di Pietro, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1470. See the description page.

MATTHEW 2:16-18: Then Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

OTHER IMAGES

The device of putting Herod on a throne and having him point toward the massacre scene goes back to at least the 4th century, as in this sarcophagus. See the description page.

Jeremiah holds the scroll with his prophecy of the massacre at the right of this detail from the façade of Orvieto Cathedral – See the description page

MORE IMAGES

  • 5th century: The Innocents' status as martyrs is emphasized in this panel in the apse mosaic at Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
  • 1325-70: In a panel in Regensburg Cathedral's Life of the Virgin windows a soldier presents Herod with a baby impaled on his spear.
  • 1485-90: The Slaughter of the Innocents appears in the second register of Ghirlandaio's monumental Life of the Virgin.
  • 18th century: Dionysius of Fourna's iconography manual (Didron, II, 901), based on practices in Orthodox churches of the time, has this for the Massacre of the Innocents: "A city. Herod seated on a throne; two soldiers are near him. In the foreground, many other soldiers with a standard. Other towns upon the mountains with women in them carrying infants; others fly hiding them behind them, and striving with their hands to save them from the soldiers. Other women are seen seated in lamentation by the dead bodies of their children. In other parts soldiers tear the children from their mothers' arms, others stab them with their swords or hew them in pieces, or cut off their heads. A crowd of children stretched bleeding upon the earth. Some in their swaddling clothes, others with their dresses. Elizabeth carries the Harbinger, a little infant, and flies, looking behind her; she is pursued by a soldier with drawn sword. A rock, mighty as a mountain, splits open to receive her."
  • Undated (late medieval?): In this painting, Herod is firmly in the center and occupies half of the space of the image.
  • Undated: This painting announces the presence in a Venetian chapel of the body of one of the Holy Innocents. The angels in the painting are accordingly given the faces of small children.

DATES

  • Feast day: December 28

ALSO SEE

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Episode in the Protevangelium of James.
  • Golden Legend #10: html or pdf.
  • The N-Town (Ludus Coventriae) "Massacre of the Innocents," in Block, 169-79.
  • The Chester "Slaying of the Innocents" play, in Deimling, I, 186-205.
  • The York "Massacre of the Innocents" play, in Davidson, 130-38.
  • The Towneley "Herod the Great" play, in Cawley, 64-77.

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