Massacre of the Innocents, Cathedral at Scrivegni, Italy, Giotto 1305-1306
Giotto de Bondone (1266/67-1337), or Giotto, as he is generally known, was a late Medieval Italian painter and architect from Florence. I am reading a book, Storytelling in Christian Art from Giotto to Donatello, by Jules Lubbock. As the title reveals, Lubbock describes how early Renaissance Christian artists visually told stories from the Bible, which the Roman Catholic Church approved and financed, distinguishing this religious art from forbidden graven images. The Church decided that these story-telling paintings and frescoes educated the illiterate peasants about the Bible which the Church prohibited them from having, even if they could read.
Pope Gregory I, or Gregory the Great (540-604), wrote in his second letter AD 600:
For it is one thing to adore a picture, another to through the story [historiam] of a picture to learn what must be adored. For what the writing offers to readers, a picture offers to the ignorant who look at it, since in it the ignorant see what they ought to follow, in it they read who do not know letters; whence for gentiles a picture is a substitute for reading.
In an earlier letter, Gregory explained why paintings, as pictures, were displayed in churches:
. . . in order that those who do not know letters may at least read by seeing on the walls what they are unable to read in books.
(emphasis added in the two quotes) Lubbock, Storytelling in Christian Art at 6-7.
Lubbock spends Chapter II looking at a series of Giotto’s frescoes in the Cathedral in Scrivegni, Italy which tell the story of Jesus life, death and resurrection. He writes about the fresco above where Giotto is picturing the story of the Massacre of the Innocents, the slaughter of infant boys under two years old in Israel. Herod was told by the Three Wise Men that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem without revealing exactly when it happened. Herod then ordered the slaughter of infants born there within the past two years, estimating the time window when the birth must have occurred, in an attempt to murder the Messiah Jesus as set forth in Scripture in Matthew 2:16-18 (ESV):
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
In the Scrivegni fresco, the faces of the mothers are somewhat impassive and subdued, as if they were numbed by the earlier loss of their children, lying in a lifeless pile below them, “resembles the dead on a battlefield. A soldier engages in a tug of war with a mother to take another child to add to the pile, while a second soldier to the right of that mother is taking another child, whose head is half hidden behind his body. Even with the massacre still in process, the other mothers are apparently defeated with numb expressionless faces.
Several years later, around 1311, Giotto painted a second fresco in the Lower Church in Assisi, Italy depicting the same scene of the slaughter nearly identical in organization. Here, though, the mothers who have lost their children are portrayed differently, clearly expressing their emotions in their anguished faces.
Massacre of the Innocents, Lower Church, Assisi, Italy, Giotto 1311
We can only speculate why Giotto chose to express the anguish in the mothers whose babies were massacred. He may have been criticized by priests or patrons of the Church, or by his assistants or other artists that the first portrayal was unrealistic or false. Or he simply wanted to paint the scene differently, having chosen purposely to paint the scene the first time with impassive numbed suffering mothers, and the second time with the mothers still in anguish, clearly distraught. Unfortunately, there are no records from the 14th Century which explain why Giotto did this.