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Pieter Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents - housed as part of the Royal Collection

A day to remember the murder of innocents

“It’s not what it seems” is how Desmond Shawe-Taylor describes Pieter Bruegel’s painting of The Massacre of the Innocents.”

The painting – housed at the Royal Collection – appears above.

“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.”

Those are words I wrote for the BBC to accompany a thirty minute documentary that I presented for Radio 4, first broadcast exactly one year ago and still available to listen to.

Today, on Holy Innocents Day, 2018 I invite you to join me in reflecting on this neglected feast day and all that it means.


The documentary was produced by Sean Glynn – who also produces UnHerd’s audio documentaries.