Ligurian School
Rest on the Flight into Egypt
early-mid-seventeenth century
oil on canvas
Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 40794


General Description

This small-sized painting, delicately painted with the tip of the brush and recorded in the 1742 Castelgandolfo inventory, was recently skillfully restored by Claudio Rossi de Gasperis.  It contains a delightful genre scene such as Veronese might have liked and painted it. The cold hues and detailed depiction of daily life scenes suggest the Ligurian school of the early seventeenth century.  Among the pictorial novelties of this depiction of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, we have the details of Mary as a washerwoman and the reading Joseph, his face half-hidden and pensive.

These domestic details are contrasted with a theological note of heavy consequence. Characteristic of late sixteenth century tradition, the rendering of the baby Jesus suggests future passion and death.  He is lying on a rock suggestive of a tomb slab.  His arms are raised toward the two angel heads in a gesture of helplessness and despair, or of oblation and resignation. His face is marked with suffering and anxiety. These unsettling marks of premonition disrupt the overall peaceful and idyllic atmosphere of this genre scene ­ with the donkey peering from behind the tree, the crystalline waters of the brook, the pyramids and palm tree in the background.  The mother instinctively seems to perceive the mood of the baby, while Joseph, engrossed in his reading, remains unaware and emotionally distant.

The motif of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt was a very popular theme in art, but known only since the second half of the fourteenth century.  It expresses not only the rest on the flight as such, but stands for the fact that the Holy Family remained in Egypt for the duration of seven years (Golden Legend).  The Rest on the Flight into Egypt forms part of the broad and much older theme of the Flight to Egypt.  Based on the colorful legends of the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, it also highlights the revelation of Christ to other cultures.

Interesting Iconographical Details

1) Mary as washerwoman may be considered novel as genre scene, but her activity of washing is well known in the apocryphal literature. In the Arabic Infancy Gospel, we read:  “From there they went to a sycamore tree which is called Matarea, and the Lord Jesus made to gush forth in Matarea a spring, in which the lady Mary washed his shirt. And from the sweat of the Lord Jesus she rang out there, balsam appeared in that place.” (24)

2) The bent palm tree in the background suggests still another scene recorded in the apocryphal Gospel of Matthew. Resting in the shade of a palm tree, Mary longs for its fruits. The child Jesus sitting with a happy countenance in his mother’s lap, said to the palm tree: “Bend down your branches, o tree, and refresh my mother with your fruit.”(20:2) And immediately the palm bent its head down, and they gathered from its fruit.

3) Joseph’s unusual activity of reading in a book may be related to the motif of the “doubting Joseph,” and his attempt at understanding the mystery of this child. It could also be read as a pendant to Mary’s intuitive perception of the child’s reaction. Joseph, who does not understand, consults the Holy Book for more light.

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God:  Art Celebrates Mary,  pp. 70-71.

See The Mary Page:  campus.udayton.edu/mary/raj/flight_to_egypt.html

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