The story of the Massacre of the Innocents is featured frequently in Romanesque sculpture. It was a typological representation of the of Cult of the Martyrs.
Such a conflation derives directly from the account in Matthew’s Gospel, the evangelist declaring that Herod’s massacre was a fulfillment of an Apocalyptic prophecy from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah.
The prophecy concerns Rachel, weeping for the loss of her children and comforted by God, who tells her that “Her children shall come again from the land of the enemy”.
Rachel’s tomb was at Bethlehem and Romanesque depictions implicitly refer to her, as they feature the mothers of the children attempting to restrain Herod’s soldiers. This is the image presented on the capital of the Porte Miègeville at Sernin de Toulouse.
According to Matthew’s account, Herod learnt from the Magi that they were come to venerate the new King of the Jews. In order to ensure that Jesus would be killed, Herod ordered the slaughter of all children under two years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Joseph, forewarned by an angel, had already fled into Egypt with Mary and the child.
It is the synthesis of the Massacre of the Innocents with the souls of the martyrs from the Book of Revelation which informs the sculptural programme on the porch of the Abbaye-aux-Dames at Saintes.
The sculpture of the arch above the central doorway, combines depictions of the victims of the Massacre with the Elders of the Apocalypse. On the voussoirs of the outer arch are ranged the Elders, while the inner arch presents the Massacre of the Innocents.
The Elders are identifiable from their iconographic attributes, the musical instrument in one hand and the phial in the other. This is a representation of Revelation 20.4 “And I saw thrones and they sat upon them and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the Word of God”.
Following exegetical traditions such as the writings of Ambrosius Autpertus, the Elders of Revelation 4.4 are identified as the occupants of the thrones.
Because of the typological reference of the Massacre of the Innocents to the Martyred Souls of Revelation, the emphasis is on decapitation and the adult proportions of the victims. These figures represent the millenial rule of the saints on earth which follows from Satan being bound by an angel come down from heaven and cast into the bottomless pit for a thousand years. The whole is surmounted by the Apocalyptic Lamb.
Biblio: Y Christe, Jugements Derniers