(b. 1449, Firenze, d. 1494, Firenze)

Slaughter of the Innocents

Fresco, width 450 cm
Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The Slaughter of the Innocents is on the third level of the left wall of the chapel, next to the Adoration of the Magi.

Vasari described this scene as being the best painting in the entire cycle "because it was executed with good judgment, ingenuity, and great skill". In the fresco "... we see the cruelty of those who at Herod's command kill the poor children without pity for their mothers... Many other emotions are also represented, so that no beholder can doubt the excellence of the master".

It is surprising that this horrific event is given an individual monumental scene in the cycle of the life of Mary, and that the normally very popular Annunciation scene is pushed to one side. But the Slaughter of the Innocents provided Ghirlandaio with an opportunity to present a dramatic composition showing a lively crowd scene scenes he had studied in classical models. It was not without reason that he placed a Roman triumphal arch covered with relief of classical battle scenes towering up behind the dramatic events. Once again the background of the picture acts as a backdrop, for the figures are bunched together on a densely packed front stage and are not integrated into architecture. The Slaughter of the Innocents takes place amid a violent swirl of movements and gestures. There is a dramatic confusion of people's and horses' bodies, which fall upon each other all around. Ghirlandaio depicts the classical model for the scene at the top on the arch.

The liveliest composition in the artist's entire range of works, this large crowd scene is reminiscent of classical battle reliefs. The mothers of Bethlehem are in a wild panic, trying to save their children from the killers' swords, which are flashing through the air. On the ground lie the mutilated bodies of the slaughtered innocents in pools of blood.

In the foreground on the right a desperately screaming mother, her red garment billowing in frantic folds, is tearing at the hair of one of the killers from behind. Pure horror is written on her face. The soldier, dressed in classical armor that has a blue leather body piece shaped to indicated the ribs, is bending right over backwards. The foreground of the picture is characterized by falling horses, bloody limbs and heads, streaming hair and drawn swords. On the far right the fleeing mothers are bunched together, but they will not succeed in escaping Herod's order that all the children of the same age as Christ should be put to the sword.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.