Massacre of the Innocents

Guido Reni

Guido Reni, Massacre of the Innocents, 1611, oil on canvas, 268 x 170 cm, on concession of the Ministry of Culture– Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, ph. Marco Baldassari, © on concession of the Ministry of Culture – Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna

What are you doing Guido, what are you doing?

The hand, that painted angelic forms,

Now depicts acts of blood?

Do you not see that as you bring back to life

The bloody hordes of children,

You give them a new death?

Oh, in such pitiful cruelty

Gentle master, well you know, 

That even a tragedy is a dear subject, 

And that horror goes often with delight.

(G.B. Marino, La strage de’ fanciulli innocenti di Guido Reni, in La Galeria, 1620)

The massacre of male children, ordered by the Jewish king Herod the Great, is narrated in Matthew’s Gospel, and has been one of the most widely treated iconographic subjects in the figurative arts since ancient times, through the Middle Ages and up to the modern age. The mute cries of the mothers, desperately clinging to their children, the pitiful prayers that can achieve nothing against the blind brutality of the executioners, are expressed in this large picture as a mass of limbs and bodies in extreme tension, moving along intersecting diagonals, accentuating the beholder’s feeling of helplessness and horror and paradoxically contradicted by the voluminous, richly-coloured robes. Guido narrates the most brutal violence by hinging it on his new idea of beauty and perfection, a concept that underlies the oxymoron at the basis of Giovan Battista Marino’s poem: in the timeless forms of artistic perfection, tragedy is transformed into beauty and “horror goes with delight”.

The artist painted the work for the aristocratic Berò family from Bologna, but presumably executed it in Rome, since his debt to the classical and Roman universe, of ancient sculpture as well as of Renaissance and even Caravaggesque painting, is here evident. It is impossible to look at the mother in the foreground on the right without recalling the sculpture of Niobe – part of the series known as the Niobids, found in 1583 in Rome and today in the Uffizi in Florence –, which has the same head turned to the sky and lips half open in dismay. Similarly, famous engravings by Andrea Mantegna, or Marcantonio Raimondi from Raphael are clearly referred to here – even in the absence of direct quotations – in the overlapping of the bodies, their poses, and the balanced distribution of spaces. Even if in this magnificent painting the influence of Raphael’s is powerful, we cannot fail to recognize the nod to Caravaggio, to his Martyrdom of St. Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel, from which Guido takes the frightened child in the arms of the woman on the right.


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