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Legends of the Madonna - The Flight into Egypt

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. La Fuga in Egitto. Fr. La Fuite de la Sainte Famille en Egypte. Ger. Die Flucht nach Aegypten.

The wrath of Herod against the Magi of the East, who had escaped from his power, enhanced by his fears of the divine and kingly Infant, occasioned the Massacre of the Innocents, which led to the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Of the martyred children, in their character of martyrs, I have already spoken, and of their proper place in a scheme of ecclesiastical decoration. There is surely something very pathetic in that feeling which exalted these infant victims into objects of religious veneration, making them the cherished companions in heavenly glory of the Saviour for whose sake they were sacrificed on earth. He had said " Suffer little children to come unto me ; " and to these were granted the prerogatives of pain, as well as the privileges of innocence. If, in the day of retribution, they sit at the feet of the Redeemer, surely they will appeal against us, then and there — against us who, in these days, through our reckless neglect, slay, body and soul, legions of innocents - poor little unblest creatures, " martyrs by the pang without the palm " — yet dare to call our-selves Christians.

The Massacre of the Innocents, as an event, belongs properly to the life of Christ ; it is not included in a series of the Life of the Virgin, perhaps from a feeling that the contrast between the most blessed of women and mothers and those who Wept distracted for their children was too painful, and did not harmonize with the general subject. In pictures of the Flight into Egypt I have seen it introduced allusively into the back-ground ; and in the architectural decoration of churches dedicated to the Virgin-mother, as Notre Dame de Chartres, it finds a place, but not often a conspicuous place ; it is rather indicated than represented. I should pass over the subject altogether, best pleased to be spared the theme, but that there are some circumstances connected with it which require elucidation, because we find them introduced incidentally into pictures of the Flight and the Riposo.

Thus, it is related that among the children whom Herod was bent on destroying was St. John the Baptist ; but his mother Elizabeth fled with him to a desert place, and being pursued by the murderers, " the rock opened by a miracle, and closed upon Elizabeth and her child ; " which means, as we may presume, that they took refuge in a cavern, and were concealed within it until the danger was over. Zacharias, refusing to betray his son, was slain " between the temple and the altar." (Matt. xxiii. 35.) Both these legends are to be met with in the Greek pictures, and in the miniatures of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

From the butchery which made so many mothers childless the divine Infant and his mother were miraculously saved ; for an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, saying, " Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt." This is the second of the four angelic visions which are recorded of Joseph. It is not a frequent subject in early Art, but is often met with in pictures of the later schools. Joseph is asleep in his chair, the angel stands before him, and, with a significant gesture, points forward, — "Arise and flee! "

There is an exquisite little composition by Titian, called a Riposo, which may possibly represent the preparation for the Flight. Here Mary is seated under a tree nursing her Infant, while in the background is a sort of rude stable, in which Joseph is seen saddling the ass, while the ox is on the outside.

In a composition by Tiarini we see Joseph holding the Infant, while Mary, leaning one hand on his shoulder, is about to mount the ass.

In a composition by Poussin, Mary, who has just seated herself on the ass, takes the Child from the arms of Joseph. Two angels lead the ass, a third kneels in homage, and two others are seen above with a curtain to pitch a tent.

I must here notice a tradition that both the ox and the ass who stood over the manger at Bethlehem accompanied the Holy Family into Egypt. In Albert Durer's print the ox and the ass walk side by side. It is also related that the Virgin was accompanied by Salome, and Joseph by three of his sons. This version of the story is generally rejected by the painters ; but in the series by Giotto in the Arena chapel, at Padua, Salome and the three youths attend on Mary and Joseph ; and I remember another instance, a little picture by Lorenzo Monaco, in which Salome, who had vowed to attend on Christ and his mother as long as she lived, is seen following the ass, veiled, and supporting her steps with a staff.

But this is a rare exception. The general treatment con-fines the group to Joseph, the mother, and the Child. To Joseph was granted, in those hours of distress and danger, the high privilege of providing for the safety of the Holy Infant, a circumstance much enlarged upon in the old legends ; and, to express this more vividly, he is sometimes represented in early Greek At as carrying the Child in his arms, or on his shoulder, while Mary follows on the ass. He is so figured on the sculptured doors of the cathedral of Beneventum, and in the cathedral of Monreale, both executed by Greek artists. But we are not to suppose that the Holy Family was left de-fenceless on the long journey. The angels who had charge concerning them were sent to guide them by day, to watch over them by night, to pitch their tent before them, and to refresh them with celestial fruit and flowers. By the introduction of these heavenly ministers the group is beautifully varied.

Joseph, says the Gospel story, " arose by night ; " hence there is both meaning and propriety in those pictures which represent the Flight as a night-scene, illuminated by the moon and stars, though I believe this has been done more to exhibit the painter's mastery over effects of dubious light than as a matter of biblical accuracy. Sometimes an angel goes before, carrying a torch or lantern, to light them on the way ; some-times it is Joseph who carries the lantern.

In a picture by Niccolô Poussin, Mary walks before, carrying the Infant ; Joseph follows, leading the ass ; and an angel guides them.

The journey did not, however, comprise one night only. There is, indeed, an antique tradition, that space and time were, on this occasion, miraculously shortened' to secure a life of so much importance ; still, we are allowed to believe that the journey extended over many days and nights; consequently it lay within the choice of the artist to exhibit the scene of the Flight either by night or by day.

In many representations of the Flight into Egypt we find in the background men sowing or cutting corn. This is in allusion to the following legend : —

When it was discovered that the Holy Family had fled from Bethlehem, Herod sent his officers in pursuit of them. And it happened that when the Holy Family had travelled some distance, they came to a field where a man was sowing wheat. And the Virgin said to the husbandman, " If any shall ask you whether we have passed this way, ye shall answer, ` Such persons passed this way when I was sowing this corn.' " For the Holy Virgin was too wise and too good to save her Son by instructing the man to tell a falsehood. But, behold, a miracle ! For, by the power of the Infant Saviour, in the space of a single night the seed sprang up into stalk, blade, and ear, fit for the sickle. And next morning the officers of Herod came up, and inquired of the husbandman, saying, " Have you seen an old man with a woman and a Child travelling this way ? " And the man, who was reaping his wheat, in great wonder and admiration, replied, " Yes." And they asked him again, " How long is it since ? " And he answered, " When I was sowing this wheat." Then the officers of Herod turned back and left off pursuing the Holy Family.

A very remarkable example of the introduction of this legend occurs in a celebrated picture by Hans Memling (Munich Gallery), known as " Die sieben Freuden Mariit." In the back-ground, on the left, is the Flight into Egypt : the men cutting and reaping corn, and the officers of Herod in pursuit of the Holy Family. By those unacquainted with the old legend, the introduction of the cornfield and reapers is supposed to be merely a decorative landscape, without any peculiar significance.

In a very beautiful fresco by Pinturicchio (Rome, St. Onofrio), the Holy Family are taking their departure from Bethlehem. The city, with the Massacre of the Innocents, is seen in the background. In the middle distance, the husbandman cutting corn ; and nearer, the palm-tree bending down.

It is supposed by commentators that Joseph travelled from Bethlehem across the hilly country of Judea, taking the road to Joppa, and then pursuing the way along the coast. Nothing is said in the gospel of the events of this long and perilous journey of at least four hundred miles, which, in the natural order of things, must have occupied five or six weeks ; and the legendary traditions are very few. Such as they are, however, the painters have not failed to take advantage of them.

We are told that on descending from the mountains they came down upon a beautiful plain enamelled with flowers, watered by murmuring streams, and shaded by fruit-trees. In such a lovely landscape have the painters delighted to place some of the scenes of the Flight into Egypt. On another occasion they entered a thick forest, a wilderness of trees, in which they must have lost their way had they not been guided by an angel. Here we encounter a legend which has hitherto escaped, because, indeed, it defied the art of the painter. As the Holy Family entered this forest, all the trees bowed them-selves down in reverence to the Infant God; only the aspen, in her exceeding pride and arrogance, refused to acknowledge him, and stood upright. Then the -Infant Christ pronounced a curse against her, as he afterwards cursed the barren fig-tree ; and at the sound of his words, the aspen began to tremble through all her leaves, and has not ceased to tremble even to this day.

We know from Josephus the historian, that about this time Palestine was infested by bands of robbers. There is an ancient tradition, that when the Holy Family, travelling through hidden paths and solitary defiles, had passed Jerusalem, and were descending into the plains of Syria, they encountered certain thieves who fell upon them ; and one of them would have maltreated and plundered them ; but his comrade interfered, and said, " Suffer them, I beseech thee, to go in peace, and I will give thee forty groats, and likewise my girdle ; " which offer being accepted, the merciful robber led the Holy Travellers to his stronghold on the rock, and gave them lodging for the night (Gospel of Infancy, ch. viii.). And Mary said to him, " The Lord God will receive thee to his right hand, and grant the pardon of thy sins ! " And it was so : for in after times these two thieves were crucified with Christ, one on the right hand, and one on the left ; and the merciful thief went with the Saviour into Paradise.

The scene of this encounter with the robbers, near Ramla, is still pointed out to travellers, and still in evil repute as the haunt of banditti. The crusaders visited the spot as a place of pilgrimage ; and the Abbe Orsini considers the first part of the story as authenticated; but the legend concerning the good thief he admits to be doubtful. (Vie de la Ste. Vierge.)

As an artistic subject, this scene has been seldom treated. I have seen two pictures which represent it. One is a fresco by Giovanni di San Giovanni, cut from the wall of some sup-pressed convent. The other is a composition by Zuccaro.

One of the most popular legends concerning the Flight into Egypt is that of the palm or date tree, which at the command of Jesus bowed down its branches to shade and refresh his mother; hence, in the scene of the Flight, a palm-tree became a usual accessory. In a picture by Antonello Mellone [Cremona], the Child stretches out his little hand and lays hold of the branch : sometimes the branch is bent down by angel hands. Sozomenes relates that when the Holy Family reached the term of their journey, and approached the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, a tree which grew before the gates of the city, and was regarded with great veneration as the seat of a god, bowed down its branches at the approach of the Infant Christ. Like-wise it is related (not in legends merely, but by grave religious authorities) that all the idols of the Egyptians fell with their faces to the earth. I have seen pictures of the Flight into Egypt in which broken idols lie by the wayside.

In the course of the journey the Holy Travellers had to cross rivers and lakes, hence the later painters, to vary the subject, represented them as embarking in a boat, sometimes steered by an angel. The first, as I have reason to believe, who ventured on this innovation, was Annibal Caracei. In a picture by Giordano, an angel, with one knee bent, assists Mary to enter the boat. In a pretty little picture by Teniers, the Holy Family and the ass are seen in a boat crossing a ferry by moonlight ; sometimes they are crossing a bridge.

I must notice here a little picture by Adrian van der Werff, in which the Wirgin, carrying her Child, holds by the hand the old decrepit Joseph, who is helping her, or rather is helped by her, to pass a torrent on some stepping-stones. This is quite contrary to the feeling of the old authorities, which represent Joseph as the vigilant and capable guardian of the Mother and her Child ; but it appears to have here a rather particular and touching significance : it was painted by Van der Werff for his daughter in his old age, and intended to express her filial duty and his paternal care.

The most beautiful Flight into Egypt I have ever seen is a composition by Gaudenzio Ferarri. The Virgin is seated and sustained on the ass with a quite peculiar elegance. The Infant, standing on her knee, seems to point out the way ; an angel leads the ass, and Joseph follows with the staff and wallet. In the background the palm-tree inclines its branches. (At Varallo, in the church of the Minorites.)

Claude has introduced the Flight of the Holy Family as a landscape group into nine different pictures.



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