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

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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.

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