The continuing massacre of the innocents

From a talk given by the BBC presenter Faynia Williams at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, as part of its lunchtime lecture series

Share

Buried deep under the stones of a troubled Bethlehem lie the bones of a story that has been nagging at the heart of Christmas for 2000 years. Surprisingly modern in its meaning for humanity, we seem unable to deal with its worrying implications. Mentioned in only two carols, and just three verses of one Gospel, now may be the time to shed some light on the darker side of the Christmas story.

Buried deep under the stones of a troubled Bethlehem lie the bones of a story that has been nagging at the heart of Christmas for 2000 years. Surprisingly modern in its meaning for humanity, we seem unable to deal with its worrying implications. Mentioned in only two carols, and just three verses of one Gospel, now may be the time to shed some light on the darker side of the Christmas story.

I have been exploring the artistic and literary responses through the ages to the terrible and difficult subject of the Massacre of the Innocents.

Charles Eastlake, the first director of the National Gallery, was "relieved no modern painter could be found to degrade his brush with the horrible subject". Luckily the present director, Neil MacGregor, whom I interviewed in depth, had a more perceptive point of view, tracing a line on this subject from Bruegel through Picasso to Damien Hirst.

Also, the Dulwich Picture Gallery opened its doors to our radio programme and allowed me to capture on tape a delightful "innocent's eye view" of their Massacre of the Innocents, the 17th century French painting by Charles le Brun.

It's the Dulwich painting that shows that massacre in all its true horror. The subject here has become the total innocence of the women and children up against the brutality of the Roman soldiers. There are no men there at all to defend the women. It's a picture that's difficult to read as a whole. You look at a series of individual scenes; scenes of mothers defending their children, of mothers having their children torn from them, and mothers mourning over their dead children.

It's as though there were three different time zones in the same space: before, during and after the massacre. The buildings make it quite clear this is Palestine under Roman occupation. In the centre of the picture, in the chariot is the representative of the state. This is a state massacre of the sort that became very familiar in the 20th century, systematic killing that we associate with a Hitler or a Stalin, but shown in a form that lets one focus on the individual horror of the event; an incident that is so extreme as to set a benchmark for ever.

I needed to see what an innocent eye would make of it. I met Harriet, six, and her sister Julia, eight, in front of the Le Brun, and asked them if they thought children should be shown such pictures? "I would let people like five and eight see it," Julia replied, "because when they were grown up and they have babies they would be alert that if it's happened before then it may happen again."

There is hope then. These are children who have grown up in an age when horror is an everyday image on our TV screens, in our newspapers and in the movies, and it has lost its currency to shock in the way the Le Brun painting did.

There's a different sort of picture that chills my soul. Another Massacre of the Innocents, but this time not in a church or hanging in a gallery. It's the one you paint in your own mind when you hear a story that makes you realise the irredeemable awfulness of the massacre of "innocence".

It's what can happen to those who survive the physical massacre, as told by International Red Cross doctor Frank Ryding.

"There was a small child of about nine from an Afghanistan village, who had been shot in the back, and was paralysed in both legs. It was my job to take him to a spinal unit in Pakistan. As we flew high above the war he said something, and the interpreter translated: 'He's looking down at the villages and he says how easy it would be to shoot people in those houses.' " And he held an imaginary machine-gun in his hands - "Ratta-tatat-tat!"

Something in the way that he said it, the whole experience, left me feeling very disillusioned about how what I thought was innocence had already, I think, been corrupted.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk
 

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention