All is not what it seems
28 December is Holy Innocents Day. Political journalist Tim Montgomerie tells the strange life story of Bruegel’s extraordinary biblical painting Massacre of the Innocents.
“It’s not what it seems” is how Desmond Shawe-Taylor describes Pieter Bruegel's painting of The Massacre of the Innocents.
The original work of the Dutch Renaissance painter was a pretty faithful interpretation of King Herod’s attempt to kill the newborn Jesus by murdering all young boys of similar infancy. Bruegel simply painted the event as if it was happening in his own time – the sixteenth century - and heavily influenced by his countryman Hieronymous Bosch and his fantastic depictions of evil in The Last Judgment and other masterpieces, he intended that the painting shock. After all, there aren’t many things more devastating than soldiers from your own king arriving in your village, battering down the door to your home and taking and killing your child.
We can’t know for sure why the painting was sanitised, and why a portrayal of murder was downgraded to one of plunder, but protecting people from the horrors of life in first century Palestine was probably not uppermost in the mind of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II when he had his acquisition doctored. This was a time when absolute Catholic rule was being resisted and that resistance was often crushed in very violent ways. The Emperor didn’t want to own a painting that gave the impression that the spirit of Herod was alive and well and he was celebrating it in an artwork on his wall.
Throughout most of Christian history the Feast of the Holy Innocents has been a central feature of the church calendar. Western churches have tended to mark Herod’s great crime on 28th December and some other churches a little later. It is an essential reminder that from the very beginning of his life Jesus was in danger and innocent blood has always been spilt by people who are determined to marginalise the Christian message or, indeed, any message of justice that the rich, powerful and corrupt would prefer to suppress.
Hatred for Jesus – first evident with King Herod’s unsuccessful attempt to kill him as a newborn and, ultimately, in the successful attempt to crucify him three decades later – is one of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, mother of Jesus and a central devotion of the Roman Catholic Church. In the modern age Roman Catholics have tended to be more faithful at marking the Feast than Protestants and not just in Hispanic cultures where the day is often treated as akin to our own April Fool’s Day. As a way of honouring the massacred infants of Herod’s time, children are allowed to play tricks on their elders and exact treats from them during games. A bigger reason why Catholics appear to treat the Feast with greater respect is that they often use it to remember what they see as the loss of life caused by modern day abortion laws. Like Bruegel’s doctored painting they feel that the lives ended in the womb have been somehow brushed out of the national conversation.
Others tend to envision the innocents as the children dying from hunger in the developing world today or people of all ages who are dying in conflicts such as in Syria and Yemen. While like many biblical stories and teachings it speaks to people of different faiths and of none in multiple ways my own prayer is that the Church revives this Feast as a way of developing a bolder response to the age of religious persecution that we live in.
The recent bombing of a chapel, very close to the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church at St Mark’s Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, killed 27 people and was only a more dramatic manifestation of violence that is making worship and free expression of the Christian faith an often deadly risk in far too many countries. Muslims, by crude numbers, remain the greatest victims of terror but the exodus of so many Christians from the Middle East and parts of Africa in recent times could and should be a higher priority for the Church in the Western world. Restoring the Feast of the Holy Innocents to some prominence in the liturgical calendar is one way that might help to make this happen.