‘Herod’s Men?’ –
We’re quite a long way away here, looking off into the distance where the perspective makes things appear far smaller. Well, the linear perspective does. The aerial, or atmospheric, perspective makes things appear paler. The dust and mist in the air – and the air itself – knocks the light out of line, and it doesn’t all reach us, so colours shift, intensity is muted, and nothing is quite so clear. And one of the things that is not entirely clear is what these people are up to: they are probably up to no good.
However pale they may be, and however muted, they do not look peaceable. OK, so one horse has stopped, and looks to our left in profile, its rider not even visible beyond the edge of the painting. But just next to it is a horse that is clearly over-animated. It appears in an extreme horsey-contrapposto, the weight on its left foreleg, the right foreleg lifted high, while it looks over what I can only assume is its right shoulder (apologies, my knowledge of equine anatomy is limited) against the movement of the foreleg. It could have been drawn by Michelangelo, and is in danger of pre-empting mannerism. To follow this through, the rear legs are in ‘contrapposto’ with those at the front – they would have to be, or it would fall over. Meanwhile its turbaned (?) rider waves a sword above his head. Further along the track another horse rears up, and at least three – maybe four – riders can be seen, with a number of flags (at least two) and spears (maybe three). Beyond the brow of the hill (down to the left) the cavalcade continues.
These can’t be the Kings, envisaged a while back on their way to Bethlehem, their progress would surely have been more sedate. The speed is immaterial, it is the dignity that counts, and these horsemen lack dignity, they lack control, they presage strife through their energetic, extreme, and potentially unbalanced movement. I can only assume that they are Herod’s soldiers, who are coming for Jesus. But what are they doing here? They don’t even know where he is yet, and they also don’t know that the Kings are not going to tell them where he is. The Kings don’t know that themselves yet, because (spoiler alert – but you already knew) they have only just arrived, and they haven’t had time to be ‘warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod’ (Matthew 2:12), so they would depart ‘into their own country another way’. No wonder, then, that we can’t see these soldiers clearly – we are looking into the future. How far into the future is not clear, either, as the bible doesn’t specify, but it could be two years. After all, this is what it says in Matthew 2:16:
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
Precisely how you interpret this is open to question, but at the very most, from the time at which the Wise Men saw the star until the point when the children were slain would have been two years. Somehow I can’t imagine Herod sitting around patiently for two whole years waiting for the wise men to come back, and given that google maps tells me it only takes two hours and eighteen minutes to walk from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (I know, I’m just picking a point at random) to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (not so random), I can’t see why he would wait more than a couple of weeks.
That’s beside the point though. After all, we don’t actually know when the Wise Men got to Bethlehem… although the Church in the West settled on 6 January (or the evening of the 5th) long ago. One early text said they got there two years after the birth – but it might have misunderstood Matthew. The point is that, unlike a Greek tragedy, a painting is not constrained by the unities of time and place, and is free to show other parts of the story. What we are looking at today is what is going to happen at some point in the future – the chronicle of innocent deaths foretold – by which time the Wise Men will have headed home another way, and the donkey will have been pressed into service for a quick escape to Egypt. And having looked at the future today, tomorrow we will see something that happened 12 – or 13 – days ago.