The Flight into Egypt

The Iconography

Matthew 2:13-14 briefly relates how an angel tells St. Joseph in a dream to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape King Herod. The angel's message is illustrated 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. Mary rides with the baby on an ass or, rarely, a horse. In many other images Joseph 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 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.

Tradigo (106) takes the boy to be a "mysterious youth" who at the Nativity had driven away a demon who was tempting Joseph, but he does not cite any text involving such a youth, nor have I found any in Schneemelcher's exhaustive overview of New Testament apocrypha.

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.


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.


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 from Egypt

In Matthew 2:19-23 an angel appears to Joseph and tells him that Herod is dead and he should return to Israel. Images of the return are often misidentified as "The Flight into Egypt," but they can usually be recognized for what they are. For one thing, any image of the family traveling by boat should be about the return. No canonical or apocryphal source has them using a boat on the way to Egypt, but the The Vision of Theophilus tells of the miraculous boat that took them home:
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.
Images of the boat episode follow this account by putting the child in his mother's arms pointing to the water. Because the transformation of the water would be hard to picture in a single image, the miraculousness of the boat's appearance is signaled by the presence of a life-size angel who has clearly taken charge. In these images the child may be about a year old, as in The History of Joseph the Carpenter and one manuscript of Pseudo-Matthew (example) or three and a half as in Theophilus example).4

The one painting with a boat that really does seem to picture the flight into Egypt is Luca Giordano's. It reproduces the muscular boatman of Return images but replaces the angel with some inconsequential putti and makes the child a tiny infant suckling at his mother's breast.

There is similar confusion regarding images in which the family meets up with the boy John the Baptist. In the apocryphal accounts he lived in "the caves of the desert when of tender years." Images of the meeting are sometimes labeled "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" but are really about the return, for in them Jesus is always a boy of twelve months (Battista Dossi) or three and a half years (Salim­beni brothers). In many of the paintings that include young John the landscapes in the background suggest that the family is headed for Palestine with its hills and cities. This is especially evident in Battista Dossi's canvas, where the participants gesture happily to a hilly region beyond a river that is most likely the Jordan.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.


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


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





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.

4 The History of Joseph the Carpenter (§8) says the family stayed in Egypt "the space of one whole year." Pseudo-Matthew 25 says the return happened "after no long time"; a variant that Schaff notes says they spent "a year" in Egypt in the home of a widow. The Vision of Theophilus says the sojourn lasted three years and six months.