Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Flight into Egypt -- The Holy Refugees, The "Simple" Images (Part I of a Series)

Giotto, Flight into Egypt
Italian, c. 1304-1306
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel

I recently wrote an essay on the iconography of the Massacre of the Innocents,1 a now neglected portion of the Christmas story, which follows directly after the passage below concerning the Magi or Wise Men and the warnings God sent by way of dreams to them and to Saint Joseph:
“… the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.

They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
When they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”

Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Matthew 2:9-15

This portion of the Christmas story has also been subject to a kind of general amnesia.  We tend to stop with the Magi offering their gifts to the Child and forget to mention the warnings and the journeys they provoked.  The Wise Men receive a warning and return to their own country “by another way”.  Joseph gets up in the middle of the night and bundles Mary and Jesus up to flee to Egypt.

Dream of the Magi
From a Psalter
English (Oxford), 1st quarter of 13th Century
London, British Library
MS Royal 1 D X, fol. 2v

These lines should have particular resonance in our own day, when sudden changes to travel plans can be caused by troubles in the places to which we had intended going and when millions of the world’s people have become refugees, fleeing war and threats to their lives, bringing with them little but the clothing on their backs and on those of their innocent, bewildered children. 

The Biblical amnesia that affects this episode of the Infancy of Jesus is now pretty well established, but it wasn’t always like this.  Images of the warnings to the Magi and to Joseph and of the Holy Family as refugees pervade the history of western art.   In fact, there are so many images of the “Flight into Egypt” and of the related subject of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” that it amused me when I was a student.  It seemed that every other slide discussed in my classes on Renaissance and Baroque arts was of one of the two subjects. 

 The Flight into Egypt began to appear in western art during the Middle Ages.  One of the earliest images I have found comes from the Moone High Cross, originally from the monastery founded there in the 6th century by Saint Colmcille.

Flight into Egypt
From the Moone High Cross
Irish, 8th Century
Moone, Co. Kildare

The image is simple and direct.  It may derive from images seen in manuscripts imported into Ireland from Byzantium and North Africa (more recent history has obscured the fact that Ireland, in its position on the main north/south sea route along the western edge of Europe, was not as isolated in antiquity and the middle ages as it later became and had trading links with the far reaches of the Mediterranean, as well as with its nearer Atlantic neighbors, France, Spain and Scandinavia). 

In general, the images associated with the Flight into Egypt fall into several distinct categories.  I’ve broken them down below.

The “Simple” Image of the Flight
In the main, the iconography of the Flight into Egypt remained remarkably consistent throughout history.   The primary image is of Mary, carrying Jesus, sitting on a donkey, usually led by Saint Joseph.  Occasionally, Mary may be seen as walking instead of riding.  Very occasionally Joseph may carry the Child.  Additional variations occur through the introduction of one or more angels who assist in guiding the family, sometimes leading the donkey instead of Joseph, who then usually follows.  Occasionally, additional human figures appear, either as fellow travelers or as onlookers.

These “simple” images form the major part of the iconography.
Flight into Egypt
Italian Ivory, End 11th-Beginning 12th Centuries
Salerno, Diocesan Museum

Flight into Egypt
Swiss Wall Painting, 12th Century
Zillis, Church of St. Martin

Gislebertus, Flight into Egypt
French, c. 1120s
Autun, Cathedral of St. Lazare

Flight into Egypt
Originally from the basilica of Saint Denis
French, c.1145
Bryn Athyn, PA, Glencairn Museum

Attributed to Theodore Apsevdis, Flight into Egypt
Byzantine, c. 1183
Cyprus Monastery Church of St. Neophytos

Bonanno Pisano, Flight into Egypt
Italian, after 1187
Pisa, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Flight into Egypt
From a Vita Christi
English (York), c.1190
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS 101, fol. 44v

Flight into Egypt
Italian (Apulia), c. 1196-1205
San Vito dei Normanni, Church of San Biagio

Nicolas of Verdun, Flight into Egypt
From the Shrine of the Virgin
Mosan, 1205
Tournai. Cathedral Treasury

Flight into Egypt
French, c.1240
Beauvais, Cathedral

Flight into Egypt
From a Psalter-Book of Hours
Belgian (Liege), c.1250-1300
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 17, fol. 32v

Flight into Egypt
 from Liber de ortu beatae mariae et infantia salvatoris
Italian (Rome), c.1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 2688, fol. 4r

Flight into Egypt
Central Leaf from a Polyptych
French, 14th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Very interesting in this ivory are the remains of the colors that were once applied to it  There are touches of red in the cross of the nimbus around the head of the infant Jesus and in the reins of the donkey held by Saint Joseph and rose on the lips of Mary and Joseph.  There are also traces of green in the incised marks that have retained some of the color that once adorned the landscape, remains of deep blue pigment under Mary's chin and touches of gold throughout.  These traces suggest that the ivory was once highly colored.

Duccio, Flight into Egypt
Italian, c. 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Giotto and Assistants, Flight into Egypt
Italian, c. 1315-1320
Assisi, Basilica of San Francesco, Lower Church

Flight into Egypt
One of 27 Scenes from the Altarpiece of the Life of Christ  from the Monastery of St. Clare
 German (Cologne), c.1370-1380
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud

Master of the Coronation of the Virgin, Flight into Egypt
From a Book of Hours Fragment
French (Paris), c. 1395-1415
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1068, fol. 6r

Boucicaut Master, Flight into Egypt
from Hours of Jeanne Bessonnelle
French (Paris), c.1400-1425
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1161, fol. 87r

Conrad von Soest, Flight into Egypt
German, c.1400
Paderborn, Episcopal Diocesan Museum and Cathedral Treasury

Lorenzo Monaco, Flight into Egypt
Italian, 1405-1410
Altenburg, Lindenau-Museum

Paolo Schiavo, Flight into Egypt
Italian, Late 1420s-Early 1430s
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

Masters of the Delft Grisailles, Flight into Egypt
From a Book of Hours
Dutch (Delft), c.1440
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 135 E 23, fol. 60v

Hans Strigel The Elder, Flight into Egypt
German, c.1450
Zell, Catholic Church of St. Bartholomew

Fra Angelico, Flight into Egypt
Panel from the Armadio degli Argenti
Italian, c. 1451-1452
Florence, Museo di San Marco

Cosimo Tura, Flight into Egypt
Italian, c.1470s
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Glass Roundel with Flight into Egypt
German (Upper Rhineland), 1480-1490
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

Bernardino Butinone, Flight into Egypt
Italian, 1485
Chicago, Art Institute

Jean Bourdichon, Flight into Egypt
From the Hours of Frederic of Aragon
French (Tours), c. 1501-1504
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10532, fol. 158

Jan de Beer, Flight into Egypt
Dutch, c. 1519-1527
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland

Wolfgang Huber, Flight into Egypt
 German, c. 1525-1530
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

El Greco, Flight into Egypt
Greco-Spanish, c.1570
Madrid, Museo del Prado

Bartolome Carducho, Flight into Egypt
Spanish, c. 1600-1603
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Giovanni Andrea Ansaldo, Flight into Egypt
Italian, c. 1620s
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica

Guido Reni, Flight into Egypt
Italian, 1620
Bradford UK, Bradford Museums and Galleries

Alessandro Turchi, Flight into Egypt
Italian, c. 1630-1633
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Francisco de Zurbarán, The Flight into Egypt
Spanish, Late 1630s
Seattle, Art Museum

Jean Tassel, Flight into Egypt
French, c. 1640-1650
Rennes, Musee des Beaux-Arts

Sebastien Bourdon, Flight into Egypt
French, c.1644
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Philippe de Champaigne, Flight into Egypt
French, c.1650-1660
Senlis, Musee d'Art et d'Archeologie

Carlo Maratta, Flight into Egypt
Italian, 1652
Stourhead, National Trust

Nicolas Poussin, Flight into Egypt
French, 1657-1658
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts 

Johann Hiebel, Flight into Egypt
German, c. 1727-1731
Leitmeritz (CZ), Jesuit Church of the Annunciation

Noel Halle, Flight into Egypt
French, 1759
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Josef Bayer, Flight into Egypt
Austrian, 1830
Vienna, Belvedere Museum

Escape by Water

Virtually all the images of the flight into Egypt depict the Holy Family traveling by land, either on foot or with the aid of their trusty donkey.  However, a handful of images depict them making at least part of the journey by boat.  Presumably the body of water they are crossing by boat is the Red Sea or the River Nile.  In either case, this may be a subtle reference to the crossing of these bodies by the ancient Israelites in their Exodus.  It would be an appropriate reference for the infant Jesus, who is the promised Savior, born to complete salvation history, the beginnings of which include the events of the Old Testament.

Luca Giordano, The Flight into Egypt
Italian, 1701
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Follower of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Flight into Egypt
Italian, c. 1750-1810
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

James Tissot, The Sojourn in Egypt
French, c. 1886-1894
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland

To Continue the Story of the Iconography of the Flight into Egypt see

The Flight Into Egypt -- The Variations

© M. Duffy, 2017, images updated 2024

  1. Massacre of the Innocents at

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