182 – The Rest of Christmas

Luisa Roldán, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c. 1690. The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Happy Christmas! And yes, it is still Christmas – as I write it is only the fifth day of twelve, and on the Fifth Day of Christmas… but that doesn’t matter right now. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, today is the Feast of St Thomas Beckett, whereas yesterday was ‘Childermas’, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. As I discussed during the Childhood of Christ course, the Massacre of the Innocents itself could have happened a full two years after Christ’s birth, but more of that later. As it is, I’m already looking forward to 2023, and I will be starting the year with a five-part series Women Artists, 79-1879 (the first 1800 years), the first two talks of which, on Monday 9 and Monday 16 January respectively, are already on sale. I’m also looking forward to some of the great exhibitions coming up: the Royal Academy will host an exhibition dedicated to Spain and the Hispanic World, while the Victoria and Albert Museum will show the sculptures of Donatello. I will talk about these exhibitions in person as part of Artemisia’s London programme (see the diary), and will also give online talks about both (dates to be decided). And so, to tie all of this together, trying to stay in the present, while also looking forward, here is something for the Fourth Day of Christmas, by a woman, which is both Spanish, and a sculpture: The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Luisa Roldán.

Mary is sitting in front of a tree with her left foot firmly on the ground, providing support for the Christ Child who is seated on her left knee. He looks upward toward his heavenly father, while leaning towards his earthly equivalent, Joseph, who kneels before him, leaning in and proffering a fruit. An angel kneels on the other side with yet more fruit gathered in the folds of the otherwise simple white-lined pink slip. Three cherubs fly among the branches of the tree, while a donkey looks on from behind. Together they form an insistently pyramidal composition.

The angel kneels on his left knee (further back), although the front, right leg is also bent, even if the knee does not rest on the ground. The right foot stretches back towards the bottom left of the sculpture, with the big toe slightly bent as it rests on the ground. The pale pink flesh is subtly differentiated from both the pink slip and its white lining (or is that yellow, or cream?) and the split in the drapery reveals enough flesh to show Roldán’s superb understanding of anatomy, without any risk of appearing inappropriate. The angel’s clothing must have something like an apron attached – otherwise it is not clear what forms the drapery in which the fruit has been gathered. In front of the angel’s knees are three white flowers with yellow centres, probably meant to be daisies, a symbol of Christ’s innocence, but also associated with Easter as they first flower in the spring. Indeed, in French they are called pâquerettes: ‘little Easter flowers’. In front of Joseph’s knees are his gourd, or water flask – important for any traveller – and two bags, which, as it happens, are not overly packed with other essentials for the journey, such as clothing and food, presumably. A small, even insignificant lapdog rests its front feet on one of the bags. I don’t remember the presence of a similar creature in other representations of this theme, but dogs are always welcome as symbols of faith, or fidelity (hence the name ‘Fido’). Like the angel, Joseph’s weight is on his left knee – although as he is on the other side of the group, this is at the front. His right knee (at the back) is more raised than the angel’s. His left foot, with the toes more bent, as at the far right of the sculpture. Between them, the two feet – the angel’s right and Joseph’s left – form the bottom corners of the compositional pyramid, a structure which is also hinted at by the diagonals formed by the lapdog and the right hand bag, and echoed by the dark pink triangle of Mary’s dress which is visible under her blue cloak.

This pyramid is continued by the backs of both the angel and Joseph, and reaches its apex, via the cherubs on either side, with their companion at the top (nb: the white garland, which you can see in this photograph, and which I initially read as part of this sculpture, is actually is in the display case half-way down the gallery). I would love to know what type of tree this is supposed to be. I asked the Ecologist, but after the briefest of glimpses he walked away with the comment that ‘it might as well be a cabbage’, which can be translated to mean that it doesn’t have any features which could lead to a positive identification. Presumably it is the source of the fruit which both Joseph and the angel are holding, and I’ve seen suggestions online that they are both pomegranates and figs. Personally, I’d like them to be dates, as there is a fantastic story in the apocryphal Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew in which a date palm kindly bends over to allow the Holy Family to gather its fruit, but I can’t convince myself that it is. Some of the leaves could almost be fig leaves – but, in a similar way, I can’t convince myself that the fruits look like figs. I suspect that it’s meant to be an apple, with the implication that Jesus has come to take Original Sin upon himself, and that Roldán wasn’t too worried about the specific nature of the Forbidden Fruit. After all, the sculpture is only 41cm high, and 46cm wide – so each individual fruit is probably less than 5mm in diameter. Given that this is polychrome terracotta the detail is superb, and the anatomy and draperies are wonderfully delicate: beautifully modelled and subtly coloured.

This is a sculpture, of course, and designed to be seen from a wide angle. From the left, we get a better sense of Joseph’s humility, with his left hand placed on his chest, a sign of his devotion and awe. He is a very young Joseph, compared to others, and this is probably due to one of Luisa Roldán’s compatriots, if not her contemporary, the 16th Century Spanish visionary, St Theresa of Avila. Her respect for St Joseph was one of the things that led to him being seen as young man, almost of an age with Mary, rather than the doddery old codger of medieval myth. We also get a far clearer view of the angel’s multi-coloured wings from this angle. But then, seen from the right, we notice the adoration in the angel’s eyes as he looks up towards the Immaculate Virgin. We just catch the donkey emerging from behind Mary’s right arm, its profile adding to the strength of the composition. In both of these views – from left and right – we get a stronger sense than we do from the front of the isolation of Virgin and Child: they really are on their own, God and Mother of God as they are, in categories of being quite apart from everyone else.

What is absolutely clear is that that this is a sculpture in high relief, and that Roldán never intended this piece to be seen from behind. The tree is completely formless, even incoherent, while the backs of Joseph and the angel tempt us to go round to the front. The cherubs at the top match their colours symmetrically – the blue harmonising with Joseph’s mauve, and the red with the angel’s pink. Luisa Roldán knew what she was doing, having trained with her father, the sculptor Pedro Roldán, and married one of his other students – against Roldán senior’s will, apparently. She was the first Spanish woman to set up her own studio outside of a convent, the first documented female sculptor, and her husband worked for her: she carved or modelled the sculptures, and he coloured them. I’ll talk more about her in week three of Women in Art, which is about the 17th Century, as that is when her career started.

When the event she is depicting, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, is supposed to have happened is not at all clear. Immediately after the Wise Men departed – avoiding a return to Herod’s court – Joseph was warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus away, as Herod would be after the baby’s life. When Herod realised that the Wise Men hadn’t come back, he sent his men to kill all the baby boys aged two and under in Bethlehem and thereabouts – hence the suggestion above that the Massacre of the Innocents might have happened two years after Jesus was born. But The Flight into Egypt could have happened immediately after the Wise Men had left, although, as they didn’t arrive until Epiphany – 12 days after Jesus was born at the earliest, if not a year and 12 days, or two years and 12 days – it wouldn’t have been on the 4th day of Christmas, despite the ‘celebration’ of the Feast of the Innocents then. Indeed, as The Presentation in the Temple should have happened on Candlemas – 2 February – the Holy Family surely can’t have headed off to Egypt before then? However, all this book-keeping of the dates and the order of events is immaterial, really, it’s the thought that counts. And the idea that Jesus was safe, and sound, and cared for, with a guardian angel, loving adults, and something to eat, is all that really matters in the end. Luisa Roldán depicts these qualities with a beautiful delicacy and telling intricacy – and more than a little sleight of hand to make it all fit together. I look forward to showing you more of her work on 23 January, but before then I will look back to the classical past and on through the mysteries of the medieval in the first talk, Following Fathers and Painting as Sisters, on Monday, 9 January, from 5.30-7.30pm. Until then, enjoy the remaining seven Days of Christmas – and have a Very Happy New Year!

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

5 thoughts on “182 – The Rest of Christmas

  1. What a beautiful object. I hope we will see it in the R.A. Spanish exhibition as well as seeing you at your lecture on the 24th January.
    Happy New Year!


    1. Isn’t it just – but I have no idea if it will come to London or not: it’s not in any of the advance publicity… But great to hear that you will be coming to the talk – I hope you can stay for lunch, it would be great to have a chat!


  2. What a fascinating object. If Mary was a teenager and Joseph, say 15 years older than her, he would have still been relatively young. About the same age as Christ when he was crucified. So I tend to agree with St Teresa of Avila! We visited Avila in 2019, not realising that this is the St Teresa of Bernini’s sculpture. Do you know if the sculpture going to be in the RA exhibition?
    I was given both The Story of Art without men by Katy Hessel and your book The Secret Language of the Renaissance. I am so excited! But which to read first?


  3. Isn’t it? And yes, I’d agree about the relative ages – Mary was often said to have been 15 when Jesus was born.
    As yet, I’m afraid, I don’t know if this sculpture will make its way to London: I haven’t seen the catalogue yet, and probably won’t until the exhibition opens – but it hasn’t been included in the images used for publicity.
    And what great Christmas presents…! If you’re going to attend my series on Women Artists then I’d read Katy Hessel first – my reason for stopping before 1900 us because she covers the 20th century so much better than I could – particularly given the time available. She covers the earlier period(s) relatively briefly, but it would help get you familiar with some of the names, if you aren’t already.
    All best wishes for the New Year,


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