Dec 25

Slaughter of the Innocents (Or, why Red is the Christmas color?)

Category: Italy,Travel

As it’s Christmas, it seems only fitting that I post something Christ-related.

Jesus was a citizen of Judea, which was run by king Herod, an SOB widely castigated by writers of the time and foully remembered throughout history. He was a Saddam Hussein-like figure, and although the census of his victims has been exaggerated for propaganda purposes, accounts of his savagery are likely accurate in tone if not in fact.

A much publicized escapade of this fellow was to order the death of all children under the age of two.  This was his reaction to learning, supposedly, that the next king of the Jews (his replacement, he thought) would be born in Judea, and it couldn’t have helped that the astrologers who predicted the event refused to cough up the ID of the individual in question – knowing that the populace, not generally pleased with their murderous Roman-puppet overlord, would be subversively pleased at the news that Herod’s replacement was among them and the substitution imminent – hope for the weary,as it were.

So, as any psychopathic bloodthirsty absolute monarch would do, he figured he’d put money on all horses, and kill all newborns, and anyone up to the age of two, because he was a thorough kind of guy.  You don’t get to be king by being sloppy.

Because these unfortunate kids were the first to die for Christ-related reasons, they are seen as a stand-in for all Christian martyrs, and for unearned suffering in general.  They’re used as a kind of guilt-trip and self-aggrandizing symbol: “You see how we’re persecuted?  And see what’s required of true Christians?”

On my 2011 trip to Italy, I saw numerous representations of this incident – known generally as the slaughter (or massacre) of the innocents.  It’s been the subject of innumerable paintings, frescoes, friezes, drawings, dramas, sculptures, poems, and any other form of art you’d care to mention.  Somewhere, there’s probably a cake decorated with this motif (note to self…).

I’d like to share two of them with you, both seen in Siena.  I saw some in Florence too, but I didn’t want to get my hand slapped for taking a picture in the Uffizi, or was too exhausted to care. First, a masterwork by Matteo di Giovanni, who was doing his thing in the 1400s.  What I like about this painting, in addition to the evident skill, is the depraved look on Herod’s face, and the gruesome ugliness so typical of art from the Middle Ages.  It was hanging in a dark hallway of the old hospital of Saint Maria of the Stairs (Santa maria della Scala) in Siena, which is now a museum.

Note the voyeurs on the stairs in the background, faces filled with excitement.

Herod is absolutely getting off on this, exhorting his troops to amp up the bloodshed.  If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was watching his team score a touchdown seconds before the end of a game.  Herod was the kind of guy who’d really have enjoyed the pony show in Juarez.

Although I’m captivated by Giovanni’s ability to depict depravity, his ability – or more likely, his willingness – to depict horror and pain are attenuated.  For some reason, there’s a strange kind of drugged passivity to a lot of Medieval and early renaissance art, with suffering toned down or smoothed out, as if it was too controversial or unsightly.  I need to learn more about this, because it’s too universal to be an accident.  Check out this mother holding her kid:

Instead of what you’d expect of someone who’s just witnessed her baby being pithed, it looks like she’s suffering the slight discomfort of passing a little gas.  The baby’s face has a kind of grisly reality to it, and I suspect that the artist was pretty familiar with violent death.  In the 15th century, life and death were not so far apart, or sanitized like today.

Apart from any of this, I think it’s interesting that Herod’s robes have a starkly geometric pattern usually associated with modern desert camo or Navajo decorations.

An even better example of this sanitized expressionality can be seen on the floor of the main duomo (Cathedral) in Siena, where there is another slaughter of the innocents, this time carved into the stone of the floor.

But in this example, rather than looking mildly pained, they look positively delighted to be participating.

Rather than an abattoir thick with the cries of anguished parents, this appears to be a scene of convivial bonhomie.  My imagined script for this scene: “John?  Long time no see buddy.  How’s it going?  Watch your step, don’t slip on the corpses.  Oh, no bother, I’ll just slip a quick dirk into him – mind the gore, there’s a good chap. No need for thanks – say hi to the missus for me!  Pardon me, madam – let me get that for you.  Oh yes, delightful weather, isn’t it? Oh, don’t try to clean up, just drop it on the floor with the others, I’ll have my people get it.”

The artists, and the patrons that paid them to make these things, succeeded in transmitting a message through hundreds of years.  It’s a future they couldn’t possibly have imagined.  In some ways they’ve succeeded as well as they could have hoped, creating a work of lasting value and visual beauty that brought prestige to their church, city, and selves; but I doubt they intended to send us this coded message about themselves.  Why would you depict such a scene of horror with slack or even happy faces?  Were styles of facial expression so different that what appears now as amusement seemed then like horror or surprise?  Or was it deemed not suitable to show true horror, as if it was pornographic, or too strong for the general public?

4 comments

4 Comments so far

  1. Christina December 27th, 2011 12:34 AM

    Interesting post, Dan. Is it possible that their expressions are like this because the event is now seen by Christians as representing something important about their Christian martyrdom? (i.e., they are happy in retrospect because their children are now saints of some kind?) Just throwing that out there as a possibility.

  2. Dan Greenspan December 27th, 2011 11:57 AM

    I’m not going to go with that interpretation, because suffering is a big part of the schtick of the religion,is it not? How can someone feel smug and superior f they aren’t suffering? But I don’t really know. If I find out, I’ll follow up here.

  3. Talkingtostones December 28th, 2011 12:36 PM

    What always confuses me is how Christians can claim these children as martyrs. If anyone could do so, it would be the Jews. Nobody was as yet dying in the cause of Christianity, as it didn’t even yet exist, and there wasn’t even any inkling in peoples’ minds that the King of the Jews they were awaiting would somehow in any way be involved in starting a break-away religion, assuming Christ actually was this awaited KoJ. Legitimate martyrdom requires some level of knowledge, some way in which the death was connected with support for, loyalty to, being part of, the cause in whose name one is claimed as a martyr (support on the parents’ parts, in this case). It’s one thing to suffer and die for being true to your religion (assuming everyone in Judea whose child was killed was Jewish — from accounts of him, I doubt Herod was that concerned with such distinctions), or for being subjected to a despot; it’s another entirely to suffer and die for your religion, or for being subjected to a despot, and then have some other religion that starts 100 years later claim that you were really suffering and dying for their religion instead.

  4. Dan Greenspan December 28th, 2011 3:00 PM

    I thought the same thing – appropriating these people as Christian martyrs is a co-option, a transgression along the lines of how the Mormons baptize us all after we’re dead.

    Although from a strict Christian perspective, it makes sense, almost: if you really believe the story, supposedly Jesus’s birth had been foretold, and everybody knew what was going on. It’s pushing the argument,but since Herod was their common enemy, and they were all being killed as a result of Jesus’s birth, they were all tied together in a common cause. God had caused all of this to happen, so they were part if his plan (nice guy that he is), so they were part of the cause. Of course, the kids didn’t know that, but do kids ever know anything that complex at the age of two?

    Now what I’d like explained to me is why God couldn’t simply arrange things so a bunch of little kids didn’t have to get killed, but it’s silly to worry about such trivial matters, isn’t it?

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