It’s called Scène du massacre des Innocents (“Scene of the massacre of the Innocents”), and it was painted by the largely overlooked Parisian painter, Léon Cogniet in 1824. Today it hangs in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes.
If it’s not the greatest of Christmas paintings, it must be one of the most haunting and affecting. A terrified mother cowers in a darkened corner, muffling the cries of her small infant, while around her the chaos and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem rages.
Most painters of this scene turn it into a huge biblical spectacle, making it a revolting tableaux of death and mayhem. But Cogniet focuses our attention on one petrified woman, a mother who knows she is about to lose her child. She envelopes her doomed child, her bare feet revealing how vulnerable they are. There’s no way to run. She is cornered.
Wisely, Cogniet doesn’t show us the carnage. It is hinted at in the rushing figures in the background. Another mother is seen carrying her own children down the stairs to the left, running for their lives. But Cogniet shows a level of artistic restraint not seen in many depictions of this story. He forces everything to the background in order to draw our attention to the woman’s terrified face.
Staring at… us!
It’s as if we are one of Herod’s agents of death, and we have found her. She glares at us in horror.
Cogniet is making us a party to the massacre of the innocents.
Hear the words of Matthew 2:18, taken, in turn, from the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
At the birth of Jesus, the heavenly host of angels had promised peace on earth and goodwill to all. But in Herod’s slaughter of the infant boys of Bethlehem, we see not peace, but evil being unleashed.
At Christmas we celebrate our belief that the king of the universe has come into the world, to wage peace and justice, to bring love and kindness to all. But we forget that the birth of Christ also released a malignant force, the unbridled power of empire, the jealous strength of a threatened monarch, meted out upon the most vulnerable of all people.
Cogniet’s Scène du massacre des Innocents asks us to examine ourselves, to consider why this woman would be so scared of us, to examine the ways we have been coopted by the forces of empire, and sided with the powerful over the weak and the poor.
On September 1, 2004, more than 30 armed Chechen militants stormed a school in Beslan, Russia, barricading 1100 children, teachers and parents in the gymnasium and wiring the room with explosives. What followed was a living hell for those caught in the three-day maelstrom. Denied food and water and forced to stand for hours in the stiflingly hot room, the children began fainting. Their parents and teachers feared they would die.
By the time the Russians stormed the school and the Chechens started setting off explosives, many of the hostages were too weak to flee the carnage. Over 385 people died.
Can you picture the woman in this painting in that gymnasium?
Hers could also be the face of a mother in Aleppo or Homs or Yemen or South Sudan.
Empires continue to clash. The powerful continue to victimize children to secure their political goals. Mothers still cradled doomed children in their arms all around the world.
This Christmas, by all means remember the angels and the shepherds and the magi and the little boy-child Jesus in his manger. But also remember this mother and her child on the streets of Bethlehem. And remember that the coming of the Christ was to set in train a revolution of love and justice that would eventually sweep away all tyrants and free all victims and end all wars.
This Christmas, remember that the followers of the Christ are called not to side with empire, but to sit with the terrified, to comfort those who mourn, to join the meek and merciful and pure in heart. And to hunger and thirst for the righteousness only Jesus can bring.