Rest on the Flight to Egypt

Caravaggio (1573-1610) left an interesting interpretation of the flight into Egypt found in Matthew 2:13-15, influenced of course by apocryphal legends that imagined a peaceful rest during the arduous journey. The oil on canvas painting, dateable 1596-99, measures approximately 53 by 66 inches. An angel with its back to us divides the scene into two parts. On the left is Joseph, an elderly worker seated on a traveling bag, dressed in earth colors, accompanied by a donkey. At his feet is bare, rocky earth, a reminder of the slavery in Egypt. On the right is the Virgin, with Jesus in arm, yielding to the weariness of the journey and dozing along with the infant. She is fair and dressed in bright color, seated amidst verdure that recalls the promised land. Accurate depiction of simple, earthly details blend with the spiritual realm, represented by the statuesque angel wrapped in a flowing robe. Divine music fills the human scene. In the Gospel Joseph regularly receives the most important messages from angels in his sleep. Here too, as Jesus and Mary sleeps, he holds the musical score from which the angel plays the violin. The piece shown is a motet “Quam pulchra es” by Franco-Flemish composer Noel Bauldewijn (c. 1480-1530). The biblical text is from Song of Songs, applied to Mary the Bride: How beautiful you are, how pleasing, my love, my delight (7:7). Her red hair recalls the verse: Your hair is like draperies of purple (7:6); and her resting: I was sleeping, but my heart kept vigil (5:2). The descent into Egypt prefigures Jesus’ self-emptying death on the cross, that will lead to his victorious resurrection. Caring for the Child who is divinity incarnate, Joseph and Mary are already associated with the paschal mystery in advance. They prefigure every Christian, called to share in the dying and rising of Christ. While we follow His steps as pilgrims on this earth, we accompany Him in His sufferings and will one day reign with Him in glory.

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