The Flight into Egypt

The Iconography

Matthew 2:13-14 briefly relates how an angel tells Joseph in a dream to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape King Herod. The angel's message is pictured in the first picture at right, from the 5th century, and in the second picture, from the 13th. It is not a common subject, but Schiller lists a few other examples.

Heeding the angel, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Images of this event are often paired with images of the Slaughter of the Innocents, as in the relief above, which exemplifies all the characteristics of typical Flight into Egypt images. Joseph (the haloed figure on the far right) leads the way on foot and points toward the destination. In many other images he is leading the ass; in this case and some others that task is done by a relative. Often a walking stick is included, carried either by a relative (as above) or by Joseph (example). Mary holds the baby in her arms and rides on an ass, or in rare instances is on foot (example). A palm tree in the background is a common addition. The figures are almost always progressing from left to right.

In rare cases the baby will be carried on Joseph's shoulders (example). Originally Coptic, this detail came into the west in the 12th century by way of Byzantine influence in Sicily. Its diffusion in Europe, such as it was, was influenced by medieval exegesis, which saw Joseph as a type of the Apostles for having taken Christ into a land of idolaters.1

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.2 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 take their cue from apocryphal narratives of the Nativity, in which Joseph's son Simeon accompanies him and Mary on the journey to Bethlehem.3 The second type of image assumes that Simeon 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. Many images 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.

A palm tree can also be pictured without any reference to the legend, as in the relief above. Schiller suggests that palms in such images, as well as the ass and the left-to-right movement, invite a comparison between this journey and Christ's entry into Jerusalem, images of which always include a palm tree.

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

En Route to Egypt

According to Pseudo-Matthew (ch. 18) a group of dragons rushed upon the family as they journeyed toward Egypt, 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.

Other legends that are sometimes pictured in Flight images include the miracle of the wheat (example) and the robber chief who defended the family (see Cartlidge, 104-106).

The Arrival and Welcome

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).

A detail in the arch mosaics at Santa Maria Maggiore parallels the episode with the Adoration of the Magi. This makes it, as Schiller says (I, 118), "a second revelation of the Christ to the heathen," patterned on the classical iconography of the adventus, a Roman emperor's formal approach to the city after a victory or as part of a procession.

The Time in Egypt

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 Nazareth

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).

Starting in the late 16th century some paintings have the family crossing a body of water in a small boat (example). A possible source for this sub-genre is the Vision of Theophilus, which says they traveled partly by sea on the return to Palestine:
We reached the town of Eshmunain and its inhabitants received us with great joy and jubilation. When morning came I carried my Son on my arms, and we came to the sea, where we looked for a ship but found none ready. Then my beloved Son made the sign of the Cross on the water and it became like a ship before us. We then went on board and we arrived at Nazareth and gave thanks to God.
There are also some images of the return in which the Holy Family meets little John the Baptist, who some legends said lived in the desert from infancy until it was time for him to preach the coming of the Messiah (example).

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-12-27, 2017-11-01, 2019-12-03, 2020-08-16, 2020-10-22.

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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.


OTHER IMAGES

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

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.

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.
  • 1325-70: Panel 1, window 4 in Regensburg Cathedral's Life of Mary Windows
  • 1510: This glass roundel of the rest on the flight borrows its iconography from Madonna and Child portraits.
  • 1512-31: Relief sculpture in Oviedo Cathedral
  • 1535-40: Battista Dossi's Holy Family with St. John the Baptist pictures the family meeting the infant John the Baptist in the desert on the way back to Nazareth.
  • 1540-45: Francisco Comontes' Flight into Egypt illustrates a secondary use for the water provided by the palm tree: the laundering of the baby's diapers!
  • 1582-87: Tintoretto's Flight into Egypt emphasizes the difficulty of the journey ahead of the holy family.
  • 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.
  • 1701: Luca Giordano's painting of the boat crossing on the family's return to Israel.

ALSO SEE

RELEVANT SOURCE TEXTS

NOTES

1 See Aliferis for a thorough discussion of these "Joseph christophore" images. Aliferis estimates that this subtype accounts for no more that 3-5% of all Flight into Egypt images.

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

3 In ¶ 17 of the Protevangelium of James Joseph "saddled the ass, and set her [Mary] upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed." The son also appears in the Nativity and Magi sections of The Book of the Infancy of the Savior, ¶¶ 62-92, and is named Simeon several times in those passages.

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