Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which was known in England as Childermass. It was once, but is no longer, one of the most celebrated feasts in the Christian calendar.
The feast marks the biblical account of infanticide by King Herod the Great. According to the Gospel of St Matthew (the only source of the slaughter), Herod ordered the execution of all young children in Bethlehem and beyond, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn 'King of the Jews', whose birth had been announced to him by the wise men.
'...Herod...was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under.' (Matthew 2:16).
The children who were slaughtered came to be known as the Holy Innocents and were later venerated as the first martyrs of the Christian church.
When, on October 23rd 1485, Domenico Ghirlandaio was commissioned to paint the Adoration of the Magi for the High Altar of the church of Santa Maria degli Innocenti, which was part of the foundling hospital of the same name, he included a small scene of the Massacre of the Innocents.
The foundlings were, after all, known as innocenti. Two of the Holy Innocents can be seen in the foreground of the painting. Ghirlandaio also included a portrait of himself and one of the man who had commissioned the painting, Francesco Talenti the prior of the Ospedale degli Innocenti. The painter looks out at the spectator, while the prior (dressed in black) stands to his right.
The painting now hangs in the Museo degli Innocenti.
Copyright © David Lown 2001-2017. All rights reserved.