Today’s Gospel in Art: The Slaughter of the Innocent

Le Massacre des Innocents, by Pieter Breughel the Elder, 1565-66, © The Royal Collection, The King’s Closet, Windsor Castle

Source: Christian art

Gospel of December 28, 2021 – Matthew 2: 13-18

After the departure of the wise men, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: “Arise, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod intends to look for the child and eliminate him. Joseph arose and, taking with him the child and his mother, set out that night for Egypt, where he remained until Herod’s death. It was to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:

I called my son out of Egypt.

Herod was furious when he realized that he had been duped by the wise men, and in Bethlehem and its surroundings he had all male children aged two years or younger killed, considering the date on which he had taken care to ask the sage. Men. It was then that the words spoken by the prophet Jeremiah were fulfilled:

A voice was heard in Ramah,

sobbing and lamenting loudly:

it was Rachel who mourned her children,

refusing to be comforted because they were no more.

Reflection on painting

Today’s gospel reading shows the gruesome nature of King Herod. Matthew tells us that after hearing from the wise men of Jesus’ birth, the king ordered that all the children of Bethlehem under two years old be murdered. Our painter Pieter Breughel gave a contemporary representation of the scene, showing the soldiers of the Spanish army and their German mercenaries killing innocent Flemish lives. Flanders was ruled by the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs from 1556 to 1714. The winter before Breughel painted our works of art was unusually harsh, with a lot of snow and ice, in which many lives were lost . This is how he used the harsh meteorological context to accentuate the cruelty of the massacre of the innocent.

As usual with Breughel, there is so much to look at in this painting. Many different scenes are juxtaposed. Shortly after this painting was made, it came into the possession of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, in Prague. He found the paint too horrible, so he decreed that the slaughtered babies should be repainted and replaced with details such as hay bales, food and animals, to make it a more palatable picture and easier to watch. . So we now have a scene from the Massacre of the Innocents without the presence of slaughtered babies. Just to draw attention to a few of these ‘replacements’: in the center left, we see a woman standing crying over her dead baby lying in the snow (later replaced with ham, bread and food) ; a couple appear to beg a soldier to take their daughter rather than kill her baby (turned into a swan); in the middle of the picture, a seated woman is crying with her dead baby (changed into a bundle) on her knees; a soldier stabs a baby (changed into a jug) rocked by a seated woman (middle right); etc …

Matthew’s account depicts the world in which Jesus was born as a world where those in power were willing to sacrifice innocent people if necessary, for their own political gain. As a result, the Holy Family that we celebrated yesterday took refuge in the land of Egypt, far from home. So today is a good day to pray for all the refugees around the world who have been driven from their homes due to the abuse of political power. Lord, we pray and ask you to look with mercy on those who today are fleeing danger, are homeless and hungry. Protect them and inspire compassion in all of our hearts.


Today’s story –
Christian art –

Keywords: Christian art, Patrick van der Vorst, Pieter Breughel the Elder, Breughel

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