Domenico Ghirlandaio 1449 – 1494

Massacre of the Innocents

fresco — 1486-90 Museum Santa Maria Novella, Florence

This work is linked to Matthew 2:16

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Also known as Slaughter of the Innocents. The fresco is part of the series on the life of Mary in the Cappella Tornabuoni, a chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Domenico Ghirlandaio and members of his workshop decorated the chapel between 1486 and 1490. Ghirlandaio was commissioned by Giovanni Tornabuoni, a rich and powerful member of the city's elite.

On the vault (the ceiling) of the chapel the four Evangelists were depicted. The right wall was dedicated to the life of St John the Baptist, and the left wall shows scenes from the life of Mary. Ghirlandaio also designed the rear wall. The panels on that wall have been dispersed over several collections, but the stained glass windows are still present.

This fresco shows the slaughter king Herod ordered when the three wise men had refused to tell him the whereabouts of the newborn Jesus. Herod wished to have Jesus killed, as he considered him as a competitor. Not knowing where to find Jesus, Herod must have thought "well then, let's simply kill all infants in Bethlehem".

In the foreground is a tumultuous, dramatic scene with desperate mothers, violent soldiers and bloody limbs of children. The Roman arch in the back serves mainly to close the background, thereby limiting the space in the foreground. Vasari, the great biographer of Renaissance artists, celebrated this work most because of the variety in emotions in the faces.

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