The Flight into Egypt

The Iconography

Matthew 2:13-14 briefly relates how Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, king of Judea. Images of this event are often paired with images of the Slaughter of the Innocents, as in the relief above. The relief exemplifies all the characteristics of typical Flight into Egypt images. Mary holds the baby in her arms and rides on an ass or more rarely proceeds on foot. Joseph accompanies her on foot (the haloed figure on the far right). Traveling with them will be one or more relatives. Sometimes the ass is led by Joseph, sometimes by a relative. Often a walking stick is included, carried either by a relative (as above) or by Joseph (example). A palm tree will be seen in the background.

THE RELATIVES

The identity of the relatives, and thus their iconography, depends on which legend the artwork is following. Some images follow the tradition in The History of Joseph the Carpenter that the family was accompanied by Salome, Mary's stepfather.1 These images will show Salome with a beard and often carrying a satchel on a pole on his shoulder, as above and in this fresco from the 16th century.

More often the images will follow the Protevangelium of James, which says that for the journey to Bethlehem Joseph "saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed" (¶17). This second type of image assumes that the son stayed with the family for the journey from Bethlehem. Like Salome, he is never haloed. Unlike him, he is unbearded and often drawn a little smaller than the other figures. Perhaps the most famous example is Titian's painting. Titian follows the Protevangelium in having the boy lead the ass, but in some other images Joseph is the one who leads, as in this fresco from the 9th century.

In that fresco Mary's mount is not an ass but a horse. Horses will continue to be substituted from time to time in these images throughout the Middle Ages.

In Giotto's fresco it is a girl who leads the ass while three boys follow behind. This corresponds to the statement in The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew that "there were with Joseph three boys, and with Mary a girl, going on the journey along with them" (ch. 18). In one puzzling fresco from the 15th century Salome leads Mary's horse while a mature woman follows behind her with a walking staff in one hand and what seems to be a bird in the other.

THE PALM TREE MIRACLE

Other than the ass and the human figures, the palm tree is the most common element in these images. The miracle referenced is in chapter 20 of The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew: The family stops to rest under a palm tree and Mary notices that the top of the tree is full of fruit. She wishes she could have some, but the tree is too high. Jesus then calls on the tree to bend down "and refresh my mother with thy fruit," and it does just that. Then at the child's further command the tree moves its roots to expose a spring of water. Some images are like the one above in simply including a palm tree to remind the viewer of the story. Others show the tree bending and the fruit being gathered either by Joseph (example) or by angels (example). Images of the spring are rare, but Cartlidge and Elliott (100) do present one 15th-century manuscript illustration that portrays the spring as an elaborate fountain and has Mary herself plucking the fruit while seated on a mound of earth.

In the 16th century artists began to lose interest in the miracle and saw this pause in the family's journey as an occasion for using their art to express a sense of restfulness and repose. The palm became merely a part of the background, as in Corregio's Rest on the Flight to Egypt with Saint Francis. By the 17th century this privileging of painterly interests led to works like Lorrain's Landscape with Rest in the Flight to Egypt, where the palm has disappeared entirely and the three travelers nearly so.

OTHER INCIDENTS OF THE JOURNEY

According to Pseudo-Matthew (ch. 18) a group of dragons rushed upon the travelers, but when they realized that Jesus was among them they suddenly bowed down to adore him. This episode is referenced by the little dragon in the corner of the Flight panel of the New Testament reliefs at Orvieto Cathedral. A similar episode from ch. 19 involving wild beasts appears in a manuscript illustration published in Cartlidge and Elliott, 103.

Starting in the late 16th century some paintings of the Flight have the family crossing a body of water in a small boat (example). There does not seem to be any literary source for this subject.

In Pseudo-Matthew (ch. 22-24) when the family arrives in Egypt in a city called Sotinen all the idols in the land fall to the ground and shatter, whereupon that city's governor and people are so impressed that they come to believe "in the Lord God through Jesus Christ." There are similar accounts of this incident in The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior (¶10-11), the Speculum Ecclesiae (837) and the Golden Legend (#10), and we see it illustrated from time to time in the art (example).

The family's arrival in Sotinen is actually the subject of the oldest known image taken from the story, a segment of the mosaics on the triumphal arch in Santa Maria Maggiore.

There are also a few images of apocryphal episodes during the family's sojourn in Egypt. These are based on The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior and The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. See Cartlidge and Elliott, 106-116.

THE RETURN TO ISRAEL

In Matthew 2:19-23 an angel appears to Joseph and tells him that Herod is dead and that he should return to Israel. To avoid any problems with Herod's son, Joseph decides to take the family to Nazareth in Galilee, which was not part of the kingdom of Judea. The return is also a favored subject in post-medieval art (example).

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-12-27, 2017-11-1.

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SHOWN ABOVE

Panels from an altar screen in Zadar, Croatia, 1030-40. Follow this link for the description page.

MATTHEW 2:13-14 — And after they [the Magi] were departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him. Who arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt: and he was there until the death of Herod.

NOTES

1 See The History of Joseph the Carpenter, ¶8 and note 1721.

OTHER IMAGES

This tym­pa­num in Cro­atia pre­sents Jo­seph's dream on the left and the Slaugh­ter of the In­no­cents seen as angels carry­ing their souls to Hea­ven. – See the de­scrip­tion pages for the dream and the accom­pany­ing relief of the Flight into Egypt.

Joseph's dream in a 5th-century mosaic – See the description page

The version of the story at Bar­ce­lo­na's Sa­gra­da Fa­mi­lia (early 20th cen­tury) keeps the legen­dary boy but not the legen­dary palm tree. – See the de­scrip­tion page

MORE IMAGES

  • 13th century: A Croatian fresco of the journey.
  • 17th century: Mola's Rest on the Flight into Egypt shows the aftermath of the palm-tree episode, with fruit laid out for a repast and Joseph's other son watering the ass.
  • 18th century: Diziani's painting of the water crossing.

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