Day 85 – The Flight into Egypt

Juan de Pareja, The Flight into Egypt, 1658, The Ringling, Sarasota, FL.

Ah, look, you say – back in our comfort zone. A Spanish artist, a familiar subject. Yesterday I said Europe, I said 20thCentury, I said America – well, two out of three ain’t bad. It’s a European painting alright, in an American collection, but it was painted in the middle of the 17th Century. And just in case you thought I’d shifted away from what I said would be this week’s theme – think again! Juan de Pareja was born a slave, and was owned by Diego Velázquez.

The Flight into Egypt is a common subject in Western European painting, drawing its imagery both from the Bible and from popular retellings of the story. According to Matthew 2:13-14, after the Wise Men had departed, 

 ‘…behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt’

Joseph has several dreams in the gospels, which explains why he is regularly shown nodding off in medieval and renaissance paintings. It’s not just that he was considered to be old (Picture Of The Day 31), although I have already got to the age where I regularly nod off… And in this case, if you actually look at the painting, he isn’t old at all.

With reddish hair and beard, and an unlined face, I could easily imagine him to be in his 30s. This is a feature of Spanish 17th Century painting – and it is partly the result of the visions of St Theresa of Avila (POTD 63). According to Catholic belief, after their marriage Mary and Joseph continued to live a life of chastity – and therefore, both remained virgins. The medieval mindset couldn’t understand how Joseph could live with the most perfect woman ever, and not sleep with her (I’m not convinced that the outlook of some men has changed…). The only explanation they could come up with was that Joseph was, to put it bluntly, past it – and with the account in the Golden Legend that he too considered himself to be old, it’s hardly surprising that that is how he was depicted. In a number of medieval mystery plays he was even treated as a cuckold. Although he was married to a woman having someone else’s baby, that would, of course, have implied that Mary was having an affair with God – so it’s surprising that the church let the actors get away with it. St Bernardino of Siena, the 15th Century Franciscan preacher who first advocated the bonfires of the vanities, was appalled that Joseph should be considered a figure of fun – but it was really St Theresa who called a halt to it all… at least in Spain, where far from being an old codger, he starts to appear as a younger, and more virile man, a suitable step father, capable of working, and of caring for both Mother and Child. 

In between the calm and clearly delineated faces of Mary and Joseph is a distant crowd of soldiers: they have come to look for Jesus and kill him. In the end, as they could not be sure which of the children he was, the ‘slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under’ (Matthew 2:16). Mary and Joseph have a curious glow over their heads, Pareja’s version of a halo, a holy emanation, whereas Jesus simply glows – it is not unlike the light you would find around the head of Tintoretto’s holy figures. Indeed, the Venetian influence in this painting is strong, probably the result of the number of Titians in the Spanish Royal Collection. 

Having said that, Joseph reminds of the Christ in Altobello Melone’s Road to Emmaus in the National Gallery – do look it up, but I suspect this is purely chance: both wear similar clothes. With his sturdy leggings, coat and hat, Joseph is dressed far more like a contemporary (17th C.) traveller than a 1st Century carpenter. Mary wears her timeless combination of red and blue, plus a rather jaunty 17th Century hat. And the angel – well, the angel is dressed how the Spanish liked to dress their angels, a pseudo-classical skirt and peep-toe boots, blue and red scarves, plenty of gold and a resplendent pair of wings. The angel is not part of the biblical narrative, but became a common presence in depictions of this story, derived from the messenger who appears to Joseph in his dream, promising to return. He becomes a guardian angel pointing the way, and leading them in safety to Egypt. Joseph effectively becomes the rear-guard – having led the donkey bearing Mary to Bethlehem, he is happy now to be the faithful follower. 

The classical temple on the hillside reminds us that these things came to pass during the reign of Caesar Augustus. And, like the Guardian Angel, the cherubs flying above the Holy Family watch over their progress. However, if I’m not mistaken (and sadly the reproductions I can find are very poor) two of them appear to be holding an apple. This is not something nutritious for the baby, but a reminder that Jesus has come to take original sin upon himself. The branches held by a couple of the cherubs could presage much the same: as palms of martyrdom they are, like the apple, a reminder that this tiny child has come to die. 

And yet, they do look like the amoretti Titian painted in the sky of The Rape of Europa – the subject of the very first POTD. But then again, as this was painted for Philip II, grandfather of the King alive in Pareja’s lifetime, that is not impossible. It is, however, surprising, that Pareja should be so strongly influenced by Venetian art given that he had been Velázquez’ assistant for nearly 30 years by the time he painted this. He became a free man in 1654, but even after this he continued to work for Velázquez until the master died – at which point he assisted Juan Bautista del Mazo, Velázquez’ son-in-law. I am entirely indebted to my sister, Jane Wickenden, for bringing him to my attention. I was aware of his name, and of the portrait that Velázquez painted of him, but not that he was, himself, an artist. I will tell you more about him another time, when I tell you about this truly glorious portrait.

Diego Velázquez, Juan de Pareja, 1650, The Met, New York.

I will look at more of his work in the future – although only ten of his paintings are known – and I will of course be talking about Diego Velázquez for Art History Abroad at 6pm (UK time) on Wednesday 24 June (yep, if you looked it up, I got the date wrong last time I mentioned it – sorry!).

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “Day 85 – The Flight into Egypt

    1. Couldn’t agree more. I think I may have read the book that Jane mentions. Feels like I read pretty much the entire Children’s library as a child and it definitely rings a bell.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thank you very much! I have known about Juan de Pareja for a very long time. I don’t know how I first came to take Elizabeth Borton de Trevino’s book ‘I, Juan de Pareja’ out from Horley Library’s children’s fiction area, but I do know that I borrowed it time and again, and eventually bought my own copy …

    Liked by 1 person

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