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The Massacre of the Innocents

The Massacre of the Innocents

Daniele da Volterra (1509-1566). Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence. Around 1557.

Herod had summoned the magi on their way to the newborn baby, to the supposed future king of Israel. He had asked the wise men to find out all about the child and to let him know when they had found him so that he, Herod, too might go and do him homage. But Matthew told that the wise men were given a warning in a dream not to go back to Herod. They returned to their own country by a different way. Herod was furious on realising that he had been fooled by the wise men and in Betlehem and its surrounding district he had all the small children killed who were two years old or less, reckoning by the date he had been careful to ask the wise men G38 .

The massacre of the Innocents is a repulsive theme. It can be handled in all the violence of the base bloodshed, and such is da Volterra’s representation. The theme can be also handled by distant restraint however and such is the picture of Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Pieter sets the scene in a Brabant village, made a view of the whole village and showed the soldiers kicking in the doors of the poor houses. But he did not depict all the violence that a bloodshed like the massacre of young children inherently possesses. Daniele da Volterra’s picture is quite the contrary. Daniele was Italian, his real name was Daniele Ricciarelli but he was called after the town he was born in, Volterra. He worked first in Siena, then went to Rome in 1535. His ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ dates from around 1557.

Daniele da Volterra has expressed all the dramatic violence in a classical epic scene. He inspired himself on other great painters. Thus the setting on monumental stairs, with the Romanesque background and the strict symmetry of the scene remind of the ‘School of Athens’ of Raphael, a fresco in the rooms of the Vatican. The attitudes of some of the figures are taken from Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’ and that not in a too reverent way. For instance, the soldier slaying an infant in the left foreground is the almost exact replica of the figure of God in the ‘Last Judgement’. Other nude figures also were copied, at least in their attitudes, from Michelangelo.

Volterra knew Michelangelo well and all the more the fresco of the ‘Last Judgement’. Michelangelo had finished the ‘Last Judgement’ in the Sistine chapel at the end of 1541. Volterra was a friend of Michelangelo while he was working in Rome. Michelangelo had become the centre of a controversy launched amongst other by the libellist Pietro Aretino. The ‘Last Judgement’ was a tremendous picture of Michelangelo’s preference for the depiction of nude male bodies. Pope Paul understood Michelangelo’s force and genius, but the massed nudity shocked more than one of the Roman clergy. Pope Paul IV finally wanted the nudes to be covered. It was Daniele da Volterra who covered in 1555 the parts judged indecent of the nudes of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. So, Volterra put breeches on the private parts of the men and petticoats on the women G28 . But he had pleaded with Michelangelo to have the job and he went so slowly at it that even the Pope lost patience in the end. Volterra put on so light a paint that the covering was almost unobtrusive. Volterra was somewhat of a practical joker, a true Renaissance man who could do all, though not with a stroke of genius. He had learnt painting under Sodoma, he had studied architecture under Peruzzi and he was also a sculptor.

Daniele da Volterra was a follower of Michelangelo with this painting. The picture can be regarded as homage to the two great geniuses of the Italian sixteenth century to Raphael and Michelangelo. Such paintings are called Mannerist, because they over-emphasise everything in a desperate attempt to force the attention of the viewer. Thus in the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’, the scene is monumental, and the drama is totally violent and bloody. Children are not just being killed, but parents and especially the mothers are disputing the children from the torturers. So the children are being torn to pieces, held upside down, and killed by the sword from under their mothers. Small dead bodies are thrown negligently over the stairs. The scene is strengthened by the nakedness of the soldiers, which makes the violence very sensual and the brute force more direct. The stairs are littered with killed babies. To make the horror complete, Herod has come to supervise the killings. He enters from the dark of the far left, guards with trumpets opening his way.

A traditional icon used in many ‘Massacres of the Innocents’ is also present in Volterra’s picture. In the lower left corner a woman is mourning her slaughtered child. Matthew cites the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamenting and weeping bitterly; it is Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more.” Matthew told that thus the prophecy was fulfilled. Matthew repeatedly mentioned by these references to earlier prophecies that the life of Jesus had been foretold in the Old Testament. Daniele da Volterra has painted Rachel on the stairs.

The whole picture is painted in the brown and red hues of Venetian style pictures, which reminds of the blood on the white robes. Even the torsos of some of the assassins are coloured in deep red. It is difficult to comprehend that this picture, so overtly violent, could have been destined to hang in a church. But it was. It was commissioned for San Pietro or Saint Peter of the hometown of Daniele, of Volterra. The fathers of Volterra may have asked of Daniele a painting in the style of Michelangelo. Daniele certainly gave the good fathers what they had asked.

The ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ reminds us of the atrocity and ruthlessness of the ancient times. The Bible is littered with scenes of revenge. Jesus came to offer other values.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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