The Massacre of the Innocents

It is important to consider the fact that in the context of Jesus’ birth an infamous child murder played a crucial role. According to the Gospel of Mattheur, the three Magi are following the star to King Herod and ask him for the place where the new King of the Jews was born. Herod sends them to Bethlehem and instructs them to tell him the exact whereabouts of the child - which, on God’s behest, they refuse to do: ‘When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem’ (Matthew 2:16). In Christian iconography, this ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ is often depicted next to the adoration by the Magi.37 The hypothesis presented here is that this influenced the design of the front side of Franks Casket.38

One of the earliest known representations of the Massacre of the Innocents is located among the mosaics of the fifth-century triumphal arch of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, directly beneath the Adoration of the Magi.39 The first examples showing the child murder in greater detail can be found on Roman sarcophagi from the fourth and fifth centuries, such as those in San Sebastiano in Rome,4 in the crypt of the church Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume (Dep. Var) (Fig. 1.2),41 and the lost sarcophagus of St Martin in

Frieze on the lid of the sarcophagus in Sainte-Marie-Madeleine

FIGURE 1.2 Frieze on the lid of the sarcophagus in Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (crypt Saint-Maximin) in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baunie, Dep. Var, France (fourth quarter of the fourth century) (After Garrucci, Sarcofagi, pl. 334:3).

Saint-Remy of which only two drawings are available.42 In the badly damaged relief in San Sebastiano, Herod is shown with a long sceptre, giving the order for the murder with a gesture of his hand. In front of him, a soldier is holding a baby by its legs and throwing it through the air, and next to them, one of the mothers laments the dead body lying at Herod’s feet. On the other two sarcophagi, Herod on his throne is portrayed on the left, looking to the right and extending the hand to order the killing, and his solders, standing to the right, in front of the king, are carrying it out, where a naked child is taken by the feet and thrown through the air. In Saint-Maximin, another soldier brings a second child, and in Saint-Remy, a child’s dead body is lying in front of Herod’s throne. From the right, grieving mothers approach the scene. On both sarcophagi, the image area of the relief is partitioned in two halves by a central panel flanked by angels. On the right half, the adoration of the infant Jesus by the three Magi is depicted. Mary is located on the right, looking to the left, thus mirroring the position of Herod in the left half.

Fifth-century ivories provide further Western Roman depictions of the children being killed by smiting. Here, too, the scenes are juxtaposed with the birth of Jesus. In a rectangular field at the top of the left panel of the ivory diptych from Ravenna (or Northern Italy) in the cathedral treasure of Milan, the infant Jesus can be seen in the stable with Mary and Joseph.4’ The lower portion depicts the Massacre of the Innocents, with Herod sitting to the left giving the order to kill with a gesture of his hand, while a soldier is hurling a naked child into the air, a second child lies on the ground, and to the right, two grieving mothers are being pushed away by soldiers. Another ivory tablet from Rome (or Northern Italy; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, inv. no. 2719) shows the same basic scene juxtaposed against the Baptism of Christ.44

This Roman type was copied in the Carolingian period. A carved ivory book cover, probably from the court school of Charlemagne and dated to about AD 800 (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Cod. Douce 176) features the triumphant Christ in its centre, illustrating Psalm 90 (91): 13.’ In one of the twelve smaller frames, the Massacre of the Innocents is depicted with its classic elements, including an enthroned Herod giving the order on the right, a soldier hurling a naked child into the air, another child lying dead on the ground, and a wailing mother.46 Directly above this image, the artist depicted the adoration ofjesus by the three Magi, with echoes of composition from the scene below. Just like Herod directly below her. Mar)' is sitting on a throne to the right of the scene, both are looking to the left, turning towards three persons, and both images appear crowded. A ninth-century ivory book cover (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Cod. Lat 939347) is divided into three fields, showing the Annunciation of Mary at the top, the Adoration ofjesus in the middle, and the massacre at the bottom: again, Herod, on a throne, gives an order, two henchmen toss two naked children in the air, and a group of mothers are watching the proceedings. In the contemporaneous Purple Evangeliary from Augsburg (Staatsbibliothek München, Clm 23631, fol. 24v), on a subsequently inserted sheet of antique or early medieval date, the same scene can be seen, with one of the children apparently being smashed on a columnar altar, while a soldier attacks one of the women and pulls her hair.48 Even in later centuries, the Roman type was copied, such as in the carved ivory book cover in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, dated to the eleventh century.49

A second type of this motif first occurs in the Middle East. In it, the children are not killed by hurling them into the air and smiting them, but by use of weapons. A miniature in the Rabbula Gospels (Florence, Bibl. Laur. Plut. I 56, fol. 4v), produced in 586 in Syria, features Herod on his throne, giving the order with a gesture of his hand, on one side, and on the other a soldier, holding up a child by its ankle and raising his sword, as well as the mother, attempting to stop the executioner.50 Directly above this scene appears the image of the Nativity ofjesus. Similarly, a clay medallion from the abbey of San Columban in Bobbio (north Italy) and produced in the Holy Land in the sixth or early seventh centuries shows Saint Elizabeth with the infant John the Baptist to the left of a soldier who appears to slay a child with his sword?1 Other early Christian or Byzantine depictions of the Massacre of the Innocents include (following an apocryphal model) Elizabeth’s escape and her hideout in the mountain, such as in the Homilies of St Gregory' of Nazianzus (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Cod. Gr. 510, fol. 137) from about 880, or in the murals in the church of Deir Abu Hinnis in Egypt from the sixth or seventh centuries.52

This eastern type also was adopted in the Carolingian empire and continued to be popular until the tenth or eleventh centuries.53 An important example appears in the initials in the Drogo Saeramentary (mid-ninth century; Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Cod. Lat. 9128, fols 31a, 32b, 34b, 38a) which feature a massacre on no fewer than ten naked children, with three grieving mothers and two executioners with their swords, as well as Mary on her throne with the baby' Jesus, the Magi coming before Herod, and their adoration ofjesus in Bethlehem.54 The manuscript of the hymn Carmen paschale from the second third of the ninth century' by poet Sedulius (Museum Plantin-Moretus Prentenkabinet, Antwerp, M 17.4, fols 15v, 16r) portrays the Adoration of Jesus and the Massacre on two adjoining pages.55 To the right of Herod, standing on the left edge of the page, there are a mother, kneeling in front of a naked child’s corpse, a soldier, impaling a second child, another woman, holding two children, and a second henchman, holding a child at the ankle and hewing at it with a sword. This manuscript could be a Carolingian copy of an older model from England.

Three very similar renderings of the massacre can be found in the Codex Egbert! (about 980; Stadtbibliothek Trier, Cod. 24, fol. 15v),56 in the Reichenau Evangeliary of Otto III (about 1000; Staatsbibliothek München, Clm 4453, fol. 30v),57 and in the Echternach Pericopes (1039-1043; Staatsbibliothek Bremen. Hs. B. 21, fol. 13).58 All three examples depict Herod to the left of the scene, holding a staff, and giving the killing order with an outstretched hand, while two men reach out for the children with raised swords. In the Codex Egberti and the Echternach Pericopes, a third thrusts a spear into the body of a child, while a heap of naked children’s corpses, some headless, is piled up, and the mothers stand to the right.

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