By Anne Leader

Today (28 December) is the Feast Day of the Holy Innocents. The Gospel of Matthew recounts how King Herod ordered the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem out of his desire to protect his throne. Unbeknownst to the king, Joseph and Mary had fled the city, sparing Jesus the same fate. Medieval theologians claimed that 144,000 were killed, adopting the number mentioned in Revelation 14:3, though the number would have been much smaller. Honored as martyrs, the Holy Innocents were typically included in narrative cycles recounting the life of Jesus. The horror of the event provided artists the opportunity to show great emotion.

Giotto, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1310s, fresco, North transept, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi

Fra Angelico, Massacre of the Innocents, 1451-52, tempera on panel, Museo di San Marco, Florence

Matteo di Giovanni, Massacre of the Innocents, 1482, panel, Sant’Agostino, Siena

Daniele da Volterra, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1557, oil on wood, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Guido Reni, Massacre of the Innocents, 1611, oil on canvas, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

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