The work was commissioned to Guido Reni, the most renowned artist in Bologna, by the city's government at the time, as a pallione, that is to say a banner to be carried in procession every year from Palazzo Pubblico to the church of San Domenico, to give thanks for an end to the plague of 1630.

The epidemic, the same one that was described by Alessandro Manzoni in “The Betrothed”, and that had stricken all of Italy, had raged in the city, causing a good twenty thousand deaths out of seventy thousand inhabitants.

In light of its future use, Guido Reni decided to paint on silk, as was customary for the processional banners.

The large work is structured in a composition divided into three bands: in the central section is a crown to intercede for the cities, the traditional patron saints of Bologna, Petronius, Proculus, Francis of Assisi, Florian and Dominic, in addition to the founders of the Confraternity of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier.

In the upper section is the Virgin seated on a throne of clouds within a glory of angels, her feet touching a rainbow, symbol of peace-making, which illuminates the grey of the sky with its light.

Portrayed in the lower section, shrouded in clouds, is the city of Bologna, with the carts of the monatti (those who removed corpses during the plague) exiting from the city walls.

The composition’s traditional scheme, the skilful use of light that shifts from the dark grey of the city decimated by the epidemic to the golden luminosity that emanates from the Virgin, suits the painting’s function well - unanimously lauded by the critics as one of Guido Reni’s masterpieces - as a great votive painting, capable of expressing the entire city’s feelings of pain and gratitude.

The painting, commissioned for the chapel of the Berò family in the Bolognese church of San Domenico and painted in 1611 probably during the artist’s sojourn in Rome, depicts the episode of the massacre of the innocents, narrated in the Gospel according to Matthew.

Between two ancient architectural backdrops, reminiscent of a theatrical stage set, two women on the right seek refuge with their children. A man, portrayed from behind, chases a screaming woman, and another, with dagger in hand, bends over the mothers who, kneeling on the ground, scramble to protect the children or cry over the bodies of those already slain.

High in the sky, two little angels display the palms of martyrdom.

Despite the turbulent nature of the subject, the painting’s layout follows a precise compositional scheme with the two opposing symmetrical groups of figures at the sides and, isolated, right in the centre of the scene, the dagger of one of the executioners, symbol of the entire subject.

The action seems to be frozen in the culminating moment, suspended in the moment between the before and after of the bloody event, as stated by writer and art critic Cesare Garboli, “exactly in the point where nothing happens”. The violence remains confined to the bruised corpses of the children in the foreground and the chilling screams of the women.

The horror is sublimated in the nobility of a measure taken by studying the large model by Raphael and classical antiquity, the famous sculpture of Niobe in the Vatican museums, the inspiration for the figure of the woman kneeling on the right.


From the first mentions in the literature on art, the contrast between the painting modes and the tragic nature of the subject, summarized in the paradox of the horror combined with the beloved children, coined in 1619 by the poet Giovan Battista Marino, aroused the admiration of art critics and writers who saw in these paintings the realization of the classical ideal of harmony and balance.

Samson or Victorious Samson, one of the most famous paintings by Guido Reni, was commissioned by Count Luigi Zambeccari as decoration for a fireplace in his home on Via Riva di Reno in Bologna. The work was later purchased by Cardinal Girolamo Boncompagni to prevent it from being sold abroad. It was donated to the City Senate in 1684.

Samson, the valiant fighter from the Old Testament, is depicted on the battlefield while drinking from a donkey's jawbone with which he has just killed a thousand Philistines, exemplified in the corpses on the ground, on many levels.

An error in the ancient translation of the biblical text had confused the name of the place where the battle took place, called Monte della Mascella, with the bone itself, generating the iconography that we see, in which the water does not flow from a crack in the rock, but from the jawbone itself.

Samson is the highest expression of that ideal of balance, beauty and harmony that inspired Guido Reni. In order to portray him, the painter studied a pose that draws on the classical model of the statue of the Apollo of Belvedere today at the Vatican museums.

The filter of ancient beauty annuls all traces of suffering and fatigue over the struggle he has just undertaken. Instead, there is a greater naturalism in the bodies of the Philistines, piled on the ground, bloody and tragic, left in the shade, sharply contrasting with the luminous quality of the victorious Samson.