Sunday, December 28, 2014

Slaughter of the Innocents

In many Christian denominations today is Holy Innocents' Day, commemorating the massacre of all boys two years of age and under in the City of Bethlehem on orders from King Herod, who was frightened by the prophecy told to him by the Magi some time after the birth of Jesus that one of the boys would grow up to be the King of the Jews.  The story is found only in Matthew, and like some other New Testament narratives that reference a specific historical incident, such as the census ordered by Caesar Augustus (that Luke said brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem), there is some doubt this event actually occurred.  Of the four canonical Gospel writers, Matthew was the one most concerned with Old Testament prophecies, and the massacre story is thought to be the fulfillment of one of them. 

Regardless of whether the event took place as Matthew described, it has certainly inspired many artists.  One of the most striking paintings by the Venetian Tintoretto, one of my favorites, is his treatment of this story.  Slaughter of the Innocents is just one of his many large depictions of bible stories on display at the remarkable Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice.  In fact, the large two story building is so chock full of his paintings that some are displayed on the ceiling of the second floor, where mirrors and seats are provided for viewing.
In his guide to the collection, Francesco Valcanover remarks that Tintoretto's painting displays “a tragic, violently dramatic pathos created by the unrestrained tangle of forms in the cruel scene....  All the details are of epic expressive violence and some attain high points of poetic effectiveness... The individual episodes are ... amalgamated under the unifying, continuous force of radiant lights into a whole that gives off an inspiration of dramatic greatness....”
R Balsamo

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