Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?

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.

That 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.

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Greatest Christmas Painting of All Time

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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42 thoughts on “Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?

  1. Mike – that painting is absolutely stunning. Mesmerizing. I’d never seen it before I stumbled on your post. Thanks for sharing it. Hope I can build a message around it for a future Christmas!

    1. Art and it’s inspiring messages are so timeless. This particular painting, unfortunately reflects our current times. It keeps our focus real.

  2. Yes, thank you Michael, I’ve just transitioned my foster baby after he’d been with me from birth a very anxious little one,
    I feel sad for his pain now, for his mum too, even as she struggles to do what is right, and I feel the burden and sadness love causes us to experience and I’m glad his kinship carers opened their family to him. I really loved your words, thank you

    1. Grace and peace to you, Hanna. Thanks for sharing part of your story.

  3. Thank you for a very powerful reminder that while we celebrate “ our tinsel Christmas “ many are struggling to stay alive. We also need to remember that Jesus came to to bring reconciliation, peace and justice for those who are vulnerable.
    I was in Melbourne when you and the other 4 ministers chained yourselves to the gates to help focus the plight of the refugees on Manus island.
    Thanks for doing that.
    I’m back in the freezing cold in Scotland. Have a joyful Christmas

    1. And merry Christmas to you, my friend.

  4. Ohhhh, my.
    I’ve always know why Jesus and his family had to flee to Egypt…but I never put a face to it. Perhaps I couldn’t face it. Now I have.

    God be with so many terrified mothers today…and bless the children.

  5. Thank you for sharing this painting… the mother’s eyes, they are haunting. People talk about the “feeling” around this season and seem cheated if they don’t experience “it” .
    This painting and your words reminds us there is so much more happening around us. To open or eyes and our hearts… and the need to take some kind action.

  6. Thank you for your insight. Sharing the terror and grief is as important as sharing peace and joy. A timely reminder…

  7. Ganz herzlichen Dank für diese wunderbare Bildbetrachtung. Ich habe sie ins Deutsche übersetzt und für meinen Weihnachtsgruß an die Gemeinde benutzt. Gottes Segen, Ihr Stefan Lampe

  8. Thank you for sharing this. It grips my heart. Mothers are still fearful for their little ones in this present world as we celebrate God’s gesture of peace.

  9. Our peace will come in our Heavenly home. For those of us who have been blessed show grace as Jesus did for all, do your best to take care of the poor and needy, and pray for peace.

  10. Her face asks “Are you a Roman soldier? Or a friend?” What are we?

    1. Just a small point: It probably wasn’t Roman soldiers who carried out the Massacre of the Innocents. Herod didn’t command Roman troops, but had his own.

      1. Also he had been dead four years, but actually the entire massacre never happened — Matthew invented it, or got it from the story of Moses. It is a regular trope in hero tales: the infant is threatened, others are slain, he survives miraculously. And so they tacked it on to Jesus.

        But such tales are symbols rather than history. This is a symbol of all the weak threatened by the violence of the state — any state — any innocents. And as Mr. Frost notes, this unknowable woman represents them all.

  11. We remember that the Roman and Jewish authorities who followed Herod completed the massacre by torturing and crucifying the one child that the wise men were seeking. Because He was still innocent, the true king of Israel and Son of God, his delayed execution accomplished an atonement that invites us all to be reconciled to His Father.
    And by the power of His atoning sacrifice, He brought all the innocents of Bethlehem, with their parents, with Him into the eternal mansions of our Father.

    1. Their parents? The children, yes. The parents? I’ve never read anything about the parents sharing in the blessings of the martyrdom of their children. The Church has always taught that the children were the first martyrs for Christ, and therefore won their salvation. I would be interested to see where in the writings of the Fathers or in Tradition it said that their parents were also saved. I don’t think there is any evidence of that. It is something we just don’t know about. If you are trying to convey the idea that all men are saved by Christ and enter heaven, that is a heresy and absolutely incorrect. We cannot be sure of the salvation of the parents.

  12. Thank you Mike for this sobering reminder. This has sparked a conversation I’ll be leading with my family in the morning for sure. Perhaps after gifts…more impact.

    1. Wonderfully written article raising important issues. But I don’t see the realistic terror in the face of the painting in a way that is true to what I’ve seen. A model cannot portray it. It can only be seen in the face of mother really in a moment if terror.

      I spent years seeing the faces of terrified mother’s having just lost their children to gang shootings in the street and projects, and deadly violence violence night after night. I was there for homicide’s, double homicide’s, even triple homicides. I was there I holding back the screaming distraught mother’s and family. I was there when a child died in a fire, when a mother backed a car over her own toddler on a tricycle. The look of utter horror and terror looks very different than what I seen in the rendition. I appreciate the story it tells but the eyes and face are not realistic to what I experienced too many times.

      Retired Austin Cop,
      Level-1 Trauma Center Chaplain, Parish Pastor

      1. Thanks for sharing your experiences. So sorry for all those losses, and the heartbreak of all those parents.

        1. Thank you for the thought provoking article and the pain it conveys. The article is something that will really stick with me this season and beyond.

  13. Someone obviously didn’t read the story of Passover

  14. Moving, compelling, want to share but don’t understand one part and it is my policy not to share things I don’t understand. What do you mean when you say “the birth of Christ also released a malignant force”?

    1. I take it to mean that Jesus’ birth (God coming in human flesh) sparked a backlash and renewed effort by the forces of evil to try to destroy human beings, made in the image of God.

  15. Amazing painting…her eyes! I felt we were both caught. We were both in terror. I didnt, as she, know why this was happening! But as I remembered, we all live under the canopy of sin. God didn’t will this but He allowed it as a much greater good was being accomplished which would be revealed in time. If the devil can take something good and pervert it to evil…then most certainly our God can take this evil, perpetrated by our free will, can save it and turn it to good! We must live in faith to our good God and not in fear.

  16. Powerful portrait that reminds all of us of the frailty of each human life. Let us never forget.

  17. I’ve read that in all likelihood Herod’s soldiers did not stop to check to see if the babies were boys or girls. Anyone of a certain age was killed, regardless of gender, so that all babies were killed. Horrible.

  18. I once read that the reference to “Rachel weeping for her children”, in the Old Testament scripture, is because the matriarch’s tomb was in the Bethlehem area. There was a sense that all the children in the locality were hers. I don’t know if that is the correct interpretation but so many deeper meanings often lurk in familiar Bible passages. I suppose it unites the people at the start of the Bible narrative with those who came into the story in later generations.
    I too had never seen that painting before but I agree that it is powerful. Very different from the often sanitised images we see of biblical events.

  19. […] Michael Frost, “Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?” Mike Frost, (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 2 January […]

  20. […] Source Credit […]

  21. La terreur exprimée par cette mère me fait penser à toutes ces personnes qui, aujourd’hui encore, avec leurs enfants sous le bras, ont fuit et fuient encore les bombardements aveugles au Yemen, dans le nord de la Syrie… N’est-ce pas là “le massacre des innocents” de nos jours?… Lord have mercy!…

  22. And there is a deep, and horrible cost to rejecting this coming King: “And when [Jesus] drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation,” Luke 19:41-44.

  23. What a powerful insight into the slaughter of the innocents.

  24. It is surely one of the greatest paintings of all. I’ll never forget when I first saw it. I had to sit down.

  25. Nothing I’ve ever seen even comes close to matching the realism and power of this painting.

    A much needed reminder that God came into a world that was anything but joyful and optimistic and warm and safe…and that Christmas didn’t immediately transform the corruption and brutality of human life: God doesn’t snatch us out of the ugliness but is with us in the midst of it, taking it all upon himself.

    1. Taking it all upon himself!

  26. Thank you for sharing this powerful painting. I have never seen it. At first, I was not sure where your article was going; what conclusion you were going to draw. But, after reading through to the end, I agree. There are so many sides of the human story that we do not think about in the Bible, and in life. Reading the comments make think of the horror that Mary and Joseph may have felt as they escaped to Egypt. The Christmas story that we share is one of beauty. But the real story, it so much deeper. A nonbeliever might say, “Who could love a God that allows this to happen?” And my reply is, “Then you must believe there is a God…that man has the capability of doing incredibly sinful things…and that one baby boy escaped, just one.” It’s a very deep painting subject that should create a lot of soul searching not only in the believer, but the nonbeliever as well. Thank you for posting this painting.

  27. This could be a mother and child on the southern border of the US, fearing that the child will be torn away from mother.

    1. I thought the same thing!!

  28. As a man I cannot begin to think I could say anything of worth to this scene, but my heart is moved by the vulnerability these mothers must have felt. Leave it to men to convene to such barbaric horrors.

    Thank you for providing this post, hoping men’s hearts might be moved to compassion towards such pure and innocent figures.

  29. It wasn’t a birth that unleashed “a malignant force.” It was the paranoia of yet another power-hungry ruler that was willing to murder to protect his wealth, throne, and life. Rumors of any usurper would have pushed that particular man the final step to madness.

    Attributing the unleashing of evil to any innocent is both wildly wrong, and dangerously misleading.

    1. Surely any generous and indeed reasonable reading of this piece would conclude that I am not blaming Christ for unleashing evil. I’m saying his birth prompted Herod’s persecution. I don’t agree at all that I have been “wildly wrong, and dangerously misleading”.

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