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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Kelmscott, Oxfordshire (†Oxford) Late C.13

The Massacre of the Innocents?
Presentation in the Temple

Massacre of the Innocents?/Presentation in the Temple, Kelmscott

Facing the story of Cain & Abel in the north transept at Kelmscott is this battered series of Infancy scenes. It is hard to be certain about details, but I think the scene at the far left and shown enlarged at the left below is likely to be the Massacre of the Innocents, found quite commonly elsewhere in Infancy Cycles. There are two principal figures placed centrally, and some confusing details between and below them which suggest that these are soldiers killing children. In particular, a small head, probably that of a child, is visible in the center of the scene just above the lower edge.

The scene is placed directly opposite that of the Murder of Abel by Cain, and if my identification is correct, this was probably intentional and meant to suggest that Herod and his men are metaphorical descendants of the fratricidal Cain.

Massacre of the Innocents?/Presentation in the Temple, Kelmscott, detail Massacre of the Innocents?/Presentation in the Temple, Kelmscott, detail

If this is indeed the case, then the scene on the right (detail, right), which I think is the presentation in the Temple as narrated in Luke 2:21-38, provides a contrasting theme of obedience to law and acceptable sacrifice. Furthest left here, under the painted canopy, is a figure who is probably Joseph, holding a basket which might contain the ‘pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons’, with Mary very faint indeed beside him, and a small head, almost certainly that of the infant Jesus, beyond to the right. What was probably a standing figure, and therefore perhaps Simeon, is, again very faintly, discernible at the far right.

The question of what was originally in the central section, now diapered with stylised flowers, is likely to remain open. The diapering here looks contemporary with the rest of the painting, but I suspect there was probably a narrative scene – perhaps the Adoration of the Shepherds (keepers of sheep like Abel) here originally. As in the story of Cain and Abel at Kelmscott, where their significance, if any, is discussed, crowned heads look on from the spandrels. The Kelmscott Expulsion from Paradise has been on the site for some time.