I wrote a sophisticated and mature post on the Holy Innocents and the Flight into Egypt just a couple weeks ago in my Seven Sorrows meditations. Go there and read that first if you want the pathos and self-searching that the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents so justly deserves.
But I noticed, while I was writing that post, that it was very difficult to illustrate.
I usually go to Wikimedia Commons and find an icon or a fine art painting to illustrate my Marian meditations. But I couldn’t find a single public domain painting of the Flight into Egypt, in the vast majority of Western Art History, that made it look anything like a flight. Here, take a look for yourself:
Here’s an attempt by Giotto Scrovegni. Now, I love me some Giotto. He’s one of my favorite painters. If I could bring one person back from the dead for a weekend I’d raise Giotto and have him paint frescoes all over my house. But he’s decided to take this horrendous nightmare of a late-night escape from genocide and set it in broad daylight against some pleasant mountains. No one in the painting looks frightened. Gabriel is sad, Joseph is carsick, and Jesus and Mary are grumpy. I don’t know who all those little kids are crowding around the donkey, but they’re just enjoying the stroll. And the donkey himself looks pleased. If you met up with these people somewhere in rural Italy, you would not assume they were refugees in danger. You’d just try to get out of the way before that grouchy lady in pink ran her smiling donkey over you.
Here’s Fra Angelico’s version. The donkey is no longer smiling, and Mary looks a bit worried. She looks like she doesn’t know whether she left the iron plugged in. Baby Jesus seems confused, which is realistic. Saint Joseph is perturbed, but look at his feet. He’s not running to keep up with the donkey. He’s taking easy strides. The donkey is clearly just mincing along. This isn’t a flight into Egypt; it’s not even a canter into Egypt. It’s a slightly anxious walk through the pleasant Italian countryside.
The Bedford Master just has everybody irritated, and too distracted to see the brass imp falling off his pedestal. Somehow I missed that part of the Bible story.
Albrecht Durer can usually be relied upon for some earthy gruffness, but he’s gone and painted Mary and Jesus asleep. Do you know how slowly a donkey has to be moving for someone to be able to sit sidesaddle on it, asleep, and not fall off? I don’t either, that’s why I’m asking.
Antonio De Correggio says, “Screw this, I want to paint Saint Francis.” I don’t even know why this painting is called “The Flight into Egypt.” They’re not fleeing anywhere. It’s just the Holy Family having a picnic while a disembodied hand points at them in the top right hand corner.
Saint Francis looks as confused as I am.
Thank you, Poussin. This is much more like an actual flight. Saint Gabriel’s freaking out, Saint Joseph’s actually looking at him, Mary and Jesus are worried. They’re painted in the act of going somewhere. I don’t know why they have a donkey, though. He doesn’t seem necessary for the composition. Where in the Bible does it say the Holy Family had a donkey? Weren’t they poor? Wouldn’t they have walked?
Brueghel the Elder just wanted to paint a bunny and some putti. Always bunnies and fat babies, that Brueghel the Elder.
Thank you, Julius Schnorr Von Carolsfeld. Saint Gabriel’s got the donkey by the bridle now. He’s taking charge. “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.”
All it’s missing is Ian McKellen saying “Fly, you fools.”
Oh, Almedia Junior? We’re stopping again? Tell me that puddle’s not supposed to be the Nile.
Well, in any case, we know they eventually made it one way or another.
(images are all photos of paintings in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)