The Gospel of St. Matthew tells the story of the Massacre of the Innocents. King Herod ordered the killing of all boys under the age of two born in the Bethlehem area, for the Magi had told him that a child destined to become the king of the Jews had been born in the city. Jesus was saved from the massacre when his Family fled to Egypt.
Nicolas Poussin depicts this dramatic episode of the New Testament. The soldier on the left tramples a horrified mother who can no longer protect her child. At the centre, another tries to flee. To the right, a third tries to hold back the executioner. The fourth, kneeling, mourns her dead child.
Pleading, horror, terror, despair, each woman’s face expresses a different feeling. The dark architecture that closes off the background of the painting leaves no escape route for the figures arranged in a frieze like an antique low relief. The faces of the soldiers, anonymous, indifferent executioners, are drowned in shadow. Their bodies form arabesques, like a macabre dance around the victims.
Even when Poussin painted tragedy, he strove for harmony in his clever and rigorous composition, to the delight of connoisseurs.
M. A. P.