Michael Frost writes on Léon Cogniet’s 1824 Scène du massacre des Innocents:
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. …
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.
Any one of us could be one of those agents of Herod. That’s what I think about when I look into her face. I could be her child’s killer. If we’re capable of heroic virtue, we’re as capable of terrible evil. This is Jordan Peterson’s point when he cautions against being too self-assured that you would be on the side of the Allies and not the Axis powers.
Christ’s appearance in the world was consequential from the earliest moments. And we see in Herod (and in ourselves) how the human heart reacts to the prospect of the King of Peace, and a new order that transcends our vanities. We have the capacity to act violently, brutally.