Monday, August 24, 2009

The Massacre of the Innocents

Title: The Massacre of the Innocents

Artist: Guido Reni

Medium: Oil on canvas

Size: 268 x 170 cm

Date: 1611

Location: Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

The Massacre of the Innocents is an episode of mass infanticide by the King of Judea, Herod the Great, which appears in the Gospel of Matthew 2:16-18. King Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the village of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi. Like much of Matthew's gospel, the incident is advanced as the fulfillment of passages in the Old Testament read as prophecies. The slaughtered infants, known as the Holy Innocents, have been claimed as the first Christian martyrs.

This depiction of events is rendered as bathed in light, but set before a landscape with dark and heavy architecture. A group of eight adults and eight children (including the putti distributing the palm fronds of victory) has been skillfully arranged. The unusual vertical format, rarely used for this theme, and above all the symmetrical structure of figural counterparts indicate that Reni was particularly interested in a specific problem of composition: that of achieving a balance between centripetal and centrifugal movement while combining them in a static pictorial structure. Reni also seeks to achieve this equilibrium in his expression of effects and in the distribution of color accents.

Guido Reni (4 November 1575 – 18 August 1642) was a prominent Italian painter of high-Baroque style. He was constantly seeking an absolute, rarefied perfection which he measured against classical Antiquity and Raphael. Because of this, over the years the Bolognese painter has been in and out of fashion, depending on the tastes of the times. The eighteenth century loved him, the nineteenth century, persuaded by the violent criticism of John Ruskin, hated him. But even his detractors cannot deny the exceptional technical quality of his work or the clarity of his supremely assured and harmonious brushwork.

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