Holy Innocents – 30 December 2019

Here is a winter picture that could almost be a Christmas card- but not quite. The painting, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder was originally a depiction of the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ (1565/67), imagined as a contemporary scene of martial violence taking place in a Flemish village. A large group of soldiers in the center of the picture, an occupying force of the Spanish army and German mercenaries, are involved in various violent skirmishes with the local population.

The ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ from Matthew 2 is one of the gospel readings set in the twelve days of Christmas, depicting slaughtered babies and distraught parents, especially mothers. Roughly sixty years after it was first painted the picture passed to a new owner, and most of the babies were over-painted. They became food, animals and bundles of possessions. The scene became one of general plunder rather than slaughter, a more acceptable aspect of war and occupation.

In various places the shadow of the infants can be seen underneath the over-painted areas. For example, a standing woman grieves over her dead baby lying in the snow (changed to an array of hams and cheeses); a couple seem to beg a soldier to take their daughter rather than kill their baby son (changed to a goose or swan); a seated woman grieves with her dead baby (changed to a bundle) on her lap and a group of soldiers stab with pikes at a pile of babies (changed to livestock) to ensure that they are all dead.

In the end the picture, like Christmas season, is tidied up and made more acceptable. A version with some of the over-painting removed is here below.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:16-18


We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

Malcolm Guite Holy Innocents