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Herod the Great in Medieval Art and Literature

Herod the Great in Medieval Art and Literature

By Miriam Anne Skey

PhD Dissertation, University of York, 1976

King Herod sitting amidst the Massacre of the Innocents – from British Library MS Royal 2 B VII f. 132

Abstract: The purpose of this thesis is to examine the treatment of Herod the Great in medieval art and literature. The opening chapters examine the accounts given by early historians, patristic commentators and the church liturgy for the traditions which they established and the interpretations which they sanctioned, and thereafter chapters deal in
chronological sequence with the art and literature of the medieval period in their response to these traditions and interpretations.

Artists of the Early Christian period were conservative in their treatment of Herod the Great; not until the twelfth century was visual expression given to the early dramatic commentaries on Herod’s violence and evil. A full flowering in the visual arts took place in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when a vast array of motifs related to Herod were developed. Earlier artistic attempts to represent him as a regal and aloof emperor were abandoned in favour of more ingenious portrayals of this king who was associated with devils and accustomed to wielding a sword.

The art of the fifteenth century does not reflect the same vitality in its treatment of Herod. Herod received his most spectacular treatment in literature in the vernacular drama of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The drama of Spain, Italy, Germany, and France developed a tradition for Herod quite distinct from the characterization given him in the English mystery cycles. A comparison of European vernacular drama with the English mystery cycles is therefore particularly enlightening for a study of the treatment given to Herod the Great.


This thesis, therefore, follows the treatment of Herod the Great in the art and literature of 1500 years, concentrating especially on the iconographic detail and distinctive literary developments of this paradoxical king of the Jews.

Click here to read Volume 1 of this thesis from White Rose eTheses Online

Click here to read Volume 2

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