Vespers: Massacre of the Innocents and Flight into Egypt
Hours of Henry VIII, in Latin
Illuminated by Jean Poyer
The Dannie and Hettie Heineman Collection; deposited in 1962, given in 1977
Illuminated around 1500 by the artist Jean Poyer, The Hours of Henry VIII receives its name from the possible but unproven eighteenth-century tradition that holds King Henry of England once owned this splendid manuscript. By following the simple instructions, you can explore every painting of this Renaissance masterpiece and learn how Books of Hours helped their readers to pray.
Books of Hours contain more or less standard texts—Calendar, Gospel Lessons, Hours of the Virgin, Hours of the Cross, Hours of the Holy Spirit, Penitential Psalms with Litany, Office of the Dead, and Suffrages—as well as a number of common accessory prayers. Based on the frequency and variety of added devotions, it appears that scribes included these for owners who wished to personalize their prayer books.
Vespers: Massacre of the Innocents and Flight into Egypt (fol. 69v)
While the Massacre of the Innocents is less common than the Flight into Egypt as the Vesper illustration, Poyer managed to include both. As the slaughter takes place in the foreground, the Holy Family departs for Egypt in the background—as can be seen through the stone ruins.
Two mothers futilely attempt to keep their children from soldiers, while a woman on the left wails uncontrollably over her dead baby. The Holy Innocents were regarded as the first martyrs, and their feast day (three days after Christmas) was already celebrated by the early Church.
Massacre of the Innocents
Following his unique account of the Adoration of the Magi, Matthew continues the narrative (2:13–18) with the Flight into Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents. Herod, learning that a future ruler of Israel would come from Bethlehem, ordered the slaughter of all male children two years old and younger living in or near Bethlehem. An angel had already appeared to Joseph in his sleep, telling him to take Jesus and his mother to Egypt until the death of Herod. (Biblical scholars, including Matthew, have recognized that the Massacre and Flight provided the pretext for the fulfillment of Hosea's prophecy [Hosea 11:1] that, like Moses, the Messiah would come up out of Egypt.)