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Gerolamo Mocetto, The Massacre of the Innocents

Key facts
Full title The Massacre of the Innocents
Artist Gerolamo Mocetto
Artist dates about 1458 - 1531
Series The Massacre of the Innocents
Date made about 1500-25
Medium and support Oil on canvas, presumably transferred from wood
Dimensions 67.9 × 44.5 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1888
Inventory number NG1240
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
The Massacre of the Innocents
Gerolamo Mocetto

The scene shows the violent biblical episode in which King Herod orders a massacre of all children under the age of two in an attempt to kill the newborn Christ, believing him to be a threat to his rule. This panel was once joined with the other painting by Mocetto in our collection, forming the left-hand part of the composition.

A number of the poses here are copied directly from engravings by the painter and printmaker Mantegna, who, like Mocetto, was working in the Veneto. The kneeling soldier who is about to plunge his dagger into an infant comes from Mocetto’s engraving The killing of the Sow (British Museum, London). The figure in this engraving is naked and about to ritually sacrifice a pig, which he holds steady by the ear.

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The Massacre of the Innocents


When Herod, King of Judea, found out about the birth of Jesus, who was being called ‘the king of the Jews’, he ordered the killing of all children under the age of two, an event known as the ‘massacre of the innocents’ (Matthew 2: 16).

These two pictures once formed a continuous image, but it was cut up before entering the National Gallery’s collection. The picture showing Herod overseeing the slaughter was originally to the right. The architecture – for example, the balustrade – continues from one scene to the next but the alignment is not seamless, suggesting that both paintings were cut down at the inside edge.

Paintings by Mocetto are quite rare; he is better known as an engraver. He has placed his signature on the pedestal supporting the column of Herod’s palace: HEROL/EMO / MOCETO / P.[INXIT] (‘Gerolamo Mocetto painted this’).