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The Life of Jesus Christ and the Art He Inspired: The Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight Into Egypt

Updated on January 11, 2016

Coventry Carol - The Massacre of the Innocents

Chapter Seven: The Holy Family Flees While Herod Murders the Children of Israel

This is the seventh installment in my series of hubs about important events in the life of Jesus Christ and the great art that His life inspired. Here we have one of the most horrific stories in the entire New Testament. Perhaps it would have been better for everyone if the Wise Men had not come to see the Christ child, because they stopped to ask King Herod the Great for directions. When they did not return to report on Jesus' whereabouts, Herod ordered a massacre of all boys under the age of two in the area around Bethlehem. The fact that this brutal butchery was actually carried out, and there was no uprising among the bereaved parents of Israel, shows the level of oppression being borne by a broken people who longed for a Messiah. The evil of Herod's decision is matched only by its ineffectiveness. While he decimated his people, leaving thousands of precious boy children dead, the child he truly feared was beyond his clutches. Joseph was warned in another dream to go to Egypt, and so the Holy Family found refuge from the carnage.

The Flight Into Egypt by Rembrandt Van Rijn

Artist	 Attributed to Rembrandt (1606–1669)  Title	The Flight into Egypt   Date	1627 Medium	oil on oak panel Dimensions	Height: 27.5 cm (10.8 in). Width: 24.7 cm (9.7 in). Current location	 Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours
Artist Attributed to Rembrandt (1606–1669) Title The Flight into Egypt Date 1627 Medium oil on oak panel Dimensions Height: 27.5 cm (10.8 in). Width: 24.7 cm (9.7 in). Current location Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours | Source

Matthew 2: 13 - 18

13 And when they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, and take the young Child and His mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”

14 When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed into Egypt,

15 and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt have I called My Son.”

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth and slew all the children who were in Bethlehem and in all the region thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,

18 “In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation and weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted, because they are no more.”

The Flight to Egypt by Maestro di Campi

Artist	Maestro di Campli (Italian) (Painter, Details of artist on Google Art Project) Title	The flight to Egypt Object type	Tempera on Wood Date	Second Half of the XIV Century Medium	Wood Dimensions	Height: 500 mm (19.69 in). Width: 530 mm (20.87 in)
Artist Maestro di Campli (Italian) (Painter, Details of artist on Google Art Project) Title The flight to Egypt Object type Tempera on Wood Date Second Half of the XIV Century Medium Wood Dimensions Height: 500 mm (19.69 in). Width: 530 mm (20.87 in) | Source
Herod the Great See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Herod the Great See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

Historical Note: Herod the Great

In order to understand the Massacre of the Innocents, it's necessary to go back to the cause - the personality and ruling style of Herod the Great. This Herod was the first of a particularly cruel dynasty who presided as puppet rulers over Israel from 37 BCE to about 100 CE. He first came to power when his father Antipater named him governor of Galilee in 47 BCE. He curried favor with such Roman authorities as Marc Anthony and Octavian and was declared the King of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 37 BCE.

He may have been appointed as King of the Jews, but the Jewish people hated him. He was only half Jewish; his father was of Edomite descent. He kept control of a people who despised him through tyranny and brutality. He invoked heavy taxes, with severe punishments for those who could not pay. Even Herod's only family was not safe from his ruthlessness; he killed one of his fathers-in-law, two of his wives, and several of his sons in his relentless push to stay in power. Herod's primary political accomplishment lay in his ability to please the Roman authorities.

Herod is praised by some historians for for some very impressive building projects. He is best known for his reconstruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem. He built amphitheaters, temples (including some pagan temples), and an elaborate palace for himself. He was a great financial backer of the Olympic games.

By the time of Jesus' birth, Herod was suffering from hardening of the arteries, and he was in declining health. He was becoming more and more mentally ill, and his growing insanity, coupled with his inherent tendency towards tyranny and violence, almost certainly contributed heavily to his decision to murder the little boys in the Bethlehem region. Herod died of his illnesses less than a year after making that decree. Since we know he died in 4 BCE, we can therefore surmise that the calendar is wrong by several years, and Jesus was also born before the year 1 CE.

Massacre of the Innocents by Matteo di Giovanni

Artist	 Matteo di Giovanni (1435–1495)  Title	The Massacre of the Innocents Date	1482 Medium	panel Dimensions	240 × 240 cm (94.5 × 94.5 in) Current location	 Sant’Agostino, Siena
Artist Matteo di Giovanni (1435–1495) Title The Massacre of the Innocents Date 1482 Medium panel Dimensions 240 × 240 cm (94.5 × 94.5 in) Current location Sant’Agostino, Siena | Source

The Massacre of the Innocents by Angelo Visconti

 Artist	Angelo Visconti (1829 - 1861) (Italian) (painter, Details of artist on Google Art Project) Title	The Massacre of the Innocents Object type	Painting Date	(1860 - 1861) Medium	oil on canvas Dimensions	Height: 100.5 mm (3.96 in). Width: 74.5 mm
Artist Angelo Visconti (1829 - 1861) (Italian) (painter, Details of artist on Google Art Project) Title The Massacre of the Innocents Object type Painting Date (1860 - 1861) Medium oil on canvas Dimensions Height: 100.5 mm (3.96 in). Width: 74.5 mm | Source

Meditation: The Cruelty of the Ruling Class During the Roman Occupation

What a heartbreaking juxtaposition we see in the images that depict the Holy Family's escape from the Massacre of the Innocents! Rembrandt offers us a furtive glimpse of Joseph leading his family away from danger in the dead of night. They are anxious, cautious, but even as they flee the child who is the Light of the World illuminates the darkness with the halo that seems to light their way and keep them from stumbling. Matteo de Giovanni gives us a picture of the massacre that shows Herod as someone just short of demonic, a sneering, grinning presence who presides over death in a manner that suggests almost glee. His people scream and moan in anguish, but their cries are not heard in the merciless onslaught. In some ways, I prefer the painting by Visconti. Here, the tragedy becomes a bit more personal. Herod does not show his face as others carry out his loathsome commands. We have a mother, terrified and furious, trying desperately to shield her baby from the soldier about to overtake her.

How could Herod have given such a malevolent order? What kind of mental illness can render a man so utterly vile as to slaughter babies? This is a man who rebuilt the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, but the outward show of piety suggested by that accomplishment is completely annihilated by this true show of his character. He fears loss of power more than he fears God. And yet, all this violence was to no avail. Not only did Jesus escape safely with his family to Egypt, but Herod himself was dead very soon after this massacre.


Le repos pendant la fuite en Égypte (Rest During the Flight to Egypt) by Michelangelo Carravagio

Français : Le Caravage - Le repos pendant la fuite en Égypte (1596 - 1597) - Huile sur toile, 133.5 x 166.5 cm - Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome Date	between 1596 and 1597 Source	[1], This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center.
Français : Le Caravage - Le repos pendant la fuite en Égypte (1596 - 1597) - Huile sur toile, 133.5 x 166.5 cm - Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome Date between 1596 and 1597 Source [1], This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center. | Source

Flight Into Egypt by Sano di Pietro

Artist	 Sano di Pietro (1405–1481)  Title	The Flight into Egypt Date	circa 1445 Medium	panel Current location	 Pinacoteca Vaticana
Artist Sano di Pietro (1405–1481) Title The Flight into Egypt Date circa 1445 Medium panel Current location Pinacoteca Vaticana | Source

Prayer

Dear Lord,

Throughout history, we have constantly faced the outbreak of senseless violence and cruelty in the world. In your day, a puppet king murdered children; in this day, we face the terrorist attacks of ISIS and deranged gunmen. When we encounter such senseless acts of cruelty, it can be difficult to believe that a loving and benevolent God holds dominion over creation. Give us the faith to remain steadfast our commitment to You, to trust that You will pass judgement on the guilty and give vindication to the innocent, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Masterpiece
Artist, date
Where it is located
The Massacre of the Innocents
Angelo Visconti, 1861
Fondazione Musei Senesi
Flight Into Egypt
Rembrandt, 1627
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours
The Flight to Egypt
Maestro di Campli,14th Century
Capitoline Museums, Rome
Massacre of the Innocents
Matteo di Giovanni, 1482
Sant’Agostino (Siena)
Le Repos Pendant la Fuite en Égypte
Michelangelo Carravagio, 1597
Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome
Flight Into Egypt
Sano di Pietro, 1445
Pinacoteca Vaticana

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