Monday, December 28, 2015

A Medieval Fresco of the Holy Innocents

From the Servite church of the city of Siena, Santa Maria dei Servi (click image to enlarge.)


This was painted in the 1330s by Pietro Lorenzetti, along with the brothers Francesco and Niccolò di Segna. The scene is set in Siena itself, the famous cathedral of which is seen at the middle of the top. Below the border is a famous quotation from Macrobius, a writer of the early fifth century, from the second book of his Saturnalia, “Melius esse porcum Herodis quam filium. - It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”


The full citation is as follows: “Cum audisset inter pueros quos in Syria Herodes rex Iudaeorum intra bimatum iussit interfici filium quoque eius occisum, ait: Melius est Herodis porcum esse quam filium. - When (Augustus) heard that among the children whom Herod, the king of the Jews, ordered to be killed in Syria, within the age of two years, his own son was killed, he said, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.’ ” As a Jew, King Herod would have no reason to kill a pig which he could not eat (a Jewish dietary custom which Roman writers often remarked upon,) but did not scruple to massacre the children in Bethlehem, and several of his own relatives. (The Wikipedia article about King Herod cites the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia to the effect that he was “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”) In Greek, which Augustus knew well, these words would make a pun, since the word for “pig” is “hus (ὗς)”, while the word for “son” is “huios (υἱός).”

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