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).
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.
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.
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.
1 Schiller, I, 114.
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