When entering a Gothic church, one instinctually looks up – the verticality of the building inviting the visitors to lift up one’s hearts. But floors are oftentimes as interesting and important as stained-glass windows, paintings in lateral chapels, ornate columns, vaults, arches, or even façades. Take, for example the floors of the Siena Cathedral, also known as the Duomo di Siena (in the original Italian), or the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta.
This cathedral’s floors are a compelling testament to the artistic genius and remarkable storytelling found within this Italian Gothic church. Indeed, its inlaid marble mosaic floor is one of the most elaborate of its kind in Italy (which is already a lot to say), covering the whole surface of the cathedral. To preserve it, the exposed floor can only be seen entirely for around six to 10 weeks per year – so visitors need to plan accordingly. The rest of the year, most of it remains covered. This is the reason why most of these mosaics are still in their original state.
Designing and installing these floors took at least two centuries (from the 14th to the 16th), bringing together about 40 artists – both local Sienese and foreign. The whole floor consists of 56 panels in different sizes – most of them rectangular, although others are hexagons or rhombuses. In them, we find scenes from the Old Testament, allegories and virtues. But also, among these intricate and captivating designs, one of the most striking and emotionally charged scenes depicted is the Slaughter of the Innocents, probably the work of Sienese maestro Matteo Di Giovanni in the late 15th century.
The Slaughter of the Innocents is perhaps one of the cruelest, most tragic biblical episodes. It is narrated in the Gospel of Matthew, recounting King Herod’s order to slaughter all male infants in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the prophesied Messiah. This event has been a recurring theme in Christian art for centuries
This biblical tragedy is vividly depicted in exquisite marble inlays on the cathedral’s floor. The scenes were made using a very specific graffito technique, which consists of drilling tiny holes and scratching lines in the marble, filling them with bitumen or mineral pitch – thus underscoring the cathedral’s commitment to craftsmanship and artistic excellence, the technique resulting in a vigorous contrast of light and dark, giving it an almost modern aspect.
The scene is brought to life with remarkable precision, capturing the desperation and horror of mothers as they try to shield their babies from the soldiers’ attack. The decision to portray the Slaughter of the Innocents in marble on the cathedral’s floor is a powerful one. It serves as an enduring reminder of the cathedral’s dual purpose as both a place of worship, and a moral school of sorts: The scene captures the perennial tension between the vulnerability of the innocent and the abuse of power.