Today we look at a powerful and affecting picture painted by Léon Cogniet (1794 – 1880) in 1824; The Massacre of the Innocents now hangs in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes.
The fact that the Biblical story of the Massacre of the Innocents is of doubtful historicity does not detract from the intensity of this picture. According to myth, Herod the Great, the Roman appointed King of the Jews, ordered the execution of all young male children in and around the city of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi. This event is not recorded in then-contemporary records, and can only be found in the Book of Matthew. (In fact, the first non-Biblical allusion to the tragedy was written more than 300 years after the supposed event.) Matthew also alluded to the massacre as a the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy: "Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more."
In the Biblical story, the Magi (or Wise Men) travel from the east go to Judea in search of the newborn king of the Jews, having "seen his star in the east." Herod directs them to Bethlehem, telling them to let him know who this king is when they find him. After the Magi find Jesus and shower the infant with gifts, an angel tells them not to alert Herod, leading them home another way.
After the Magi had gone, an angel 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."
Herod was livid when he realized that the Magi pulled a fast one, ordering his soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding area who were two years old and under, in accordance with the calculations of 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. (All of this is even more confusing when one considers the popular image of the Magi worshipping Christ in the manger … the chronology necessary to account for the possibility of a two-year old Jesus is a challenge.)
Contemporary estimates are that some 1000 people were in the area at the time, which would, statistically, mean some 20 infants. If the event happened at all, then these children are the first Christian martyrs. To some, Christ voluntarily allowed himself to be crucified to expiate his own escape from this, the first attempt on His life.
Because of its integral part in the Christian myth, the Massacre of the Innocents was an incredibly popular theme with painters from the Middle Ages on. Today’s picture is perhaps Cogniet’s greatest achievement. Most artists attack the story in a broad view, with many women screaming in lamentation as Roman soldiers mercilessly attack their children. But rather than take a broad view, Cogniet paints an extremely intimate picture – this is no tableaux out of a Biblical spectacle, but the stark depiction of a terrified mother about to lose her child.
The mother is wonderfully rendered. Her bare head and bare feet make her more vulnerable, and the fact that she protects her infant with her body in no way mitigates the fact that she is cornered. The muted colors of the mother and her bit of ruined stairway also underscore the solemnity of the picture. (The only real hint of color is the pink of the baby’s cheeks.) Wisely, Cogniet suggests rather than depicts the massacre in the background, a bit of artistic restraint absent in most renderings.
What is perhaps most striking to my eye is the contemporary feel of Cogniet’s picture. Though depicting a Biblical story, this painting could well illustrate the insanity of religious violence still occurring in that part of the world.