Hunt began painting this subject while on a visit to the Holy Land in the 1870s. It shows Mary, Joseph and infant Jesus escaping to Egypt as King Herod kills all the first-born males or 'innocents' in Bethlehem, described in The Gospel of Matthew, 2: 16-18. Hunt originally intended to show just the Holy Family, but he later decided to add the martyred innocents. The Holy Family are surrounded by the spirits of the children slain by Herod. Hunt wanted the bubbles, or 'airy globes' which accompany the procession, to convey a sense of the waves of 'the streams of eternal life'.