The Massacre of the Innocents

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Giotto di Bondone, The Massacre of Innocence, 1304-1306

When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. Get up, he said, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son." When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."  -- Mathew 2:16-18

There he sits, looking on above his subjects, commanding his men on ward to Bethlehem. Once there, King Herod’s men have been given the order to kill all children under the age of two. He learned from the Magi, in their search for a new born child, that a child was prophesized to become the new king of the Jews. He had his men follow the magi to force them to tell him the location of this new king. Outwitted, the King sent his soldiers into Bethlehem to kill all the children in hopes that children would be one of them. An angel had warned Joseph to flee with Jesus to Egypt avoiding the massacre.

Giotto’s Massacre of the Innocents, painted in 1304, depicts the chaos in Mathew 2:16-18. Soldiers stand over the pile of corpses, pulling children from the arms of mothers. Initially viewing Giotto’s figures, they appear flat with dull facial expressions, yet he makes the first attempt at capturing human emotion in a painting during this time. The use of body language -- seen in the shame of the men on the left and the distraught faces of the mothers as their youth are massacred -- was something that was never seen before. The irony of the building in the back was reserved for the Jewish baptisms, the Mikvah which was done to reach ritual purity.

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