Raphael: "The Holy Family under a Palm Tree."*
In the first decade of the 16th century the work of Raphael indicates a strong interest in episodes on the Flight into Egypt. During his Florentine period (1504-1508) Raphael did at least two versions of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."
One is a tondo, the “Holy Family under a Palm Tree,” dated c. 1506/7 and currently on loan since 1945 to Scotland’s National Gallery. This painting reflects the naturalism that Italian artists liked to bring to the subject, but also an increased importance for St. Joseph.The prominent palm tree in the background is the only reference that Raphael gives to the popular apocryphal legends surrounding the flight. According to the legend the palm or date tree bent down at the command of the Child so that Joseph could pick its fruit and feed his wife.
In the foreground Joseph is not depicted as a little old man off to the side in search of food. He has been given a prominent position front and center. He holds his simple pilgrim’s staff but is dressed in royal purple and gold. He is no longer a doddering old man and seems capable of protecting the Madonna and Child. Surely, his prominence reflects the growing importance of Joseph in the first decade of the century for Raphael’s patron as well as for most believers.
Raphael: "The Holy Family with the Young St. Joseph," Hermitage.
Another Raphael “Rest” is the “Holy Family with the Young St. Joseph” in the Hermitage and dated around 1506. The three figures are in an enclosure that looks out on a landscape. Again Joseph is not depicted as a decrepit old man but as a beardless middle-ager.
These two versions of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” are only a hint of the interest of Raphael and his patrons in the sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt. Many of the great Madonnas that Raphael painted during his Florentine period are depictions of the meeting of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on their return from Egypt.
In Legends of the Madonna Mrs. Anna Jameson gave the background for this legendary meeting.**
Thus, it is related that among the children whom Herod was bent on destroying, was St. John the Baptist; but his mother Elizabeth fled with him to a desert place, and being pursued by the murderers, “the rock opened by a miracle, and closed upon Elizabeth and her child;” which means, as we may presume, that they took refuge in a cavern, and were concealed within it until the danger was over. (356)
Mrs. Jameson added that this meeting has led to some confusion in the minds of artists as well as viewers.
It is nowhere recorded, either in Scripture or in the legendary stories, that Mary and Joseph, in their flight were accompanied by Elizabeth and the little St. John; therefore, where either of these are introduced, the subject is not properly a Riposo, whatever the intention of the painter may have been…366.
Many of Raphael’s most famous Madonnas are versions of this meeting despite their popular appellations.
Painted in 1505 the “Terranuova Madonna” (Berlin, Staatliche Museum, Gemaldegalerie) shows the Infant Christ perusing the scroll presented by the Baptist. The writing clearly refers to the Lamb of God. Inexplicably, another infant looks on. In the left background is a city that represents Judea, and in the right background are the rocks that formed the hiding place of the Baptist.
In 1506 the famous “Belvedere Madonna” (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) shows the Christ Child accepting the sacrificial cross from the kneeling Baptist. Again they are in a landscape with a city in the background.
In the “La Belle Jardiniere” of 1507 (Paris, Louvre) the Christ Child looks up at his mother as John announces the mission. In a study Raphael has Christ looking directly at John.
Dated about 1507 the “Canigiani Holy Family” (Munich, Alte Pinakothek) is a much more elaborate version of the “Encounter with the Baptist.” With obvious reference to depictions of this scene by Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael adds Elizabeth and a prominent Joseph with his staff and golden robe.
Also in 1507 “The Holy Family with a Lamb” (Madrid, Prado) substitutes a lamb for the Baptist. Again in gold Joseph leans on his staff and observes the child riding the lamb.
Finally, around the end of the Florentine period Raphael painted the “Esterhazy Madonna” (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts). The Infant Christ points to the scroll.
What explains the popularity of the “Encounter with the Baptist on the Return from Egypt” in the first decade of the 16th century? It was common to transpose the events of Christ’s maturity to his infancy. The meeting with John the Baptist at the river Jordan is reflected in this earlier meeting on the return from Egypt. John's words, "Behold the Lamb of God," marked the beginning of the salvific mission of Jesus.
Raphael’s interest in these desert scenes reflected the devotion of wealthy patrons as well as humble worshippers. Who can doubt that Giorgione and his patrons did not share the same interest? In the Tempest Giorgione went far beyond the standard image of the “Rest on the Flight” but all the iconographical elements are there.
Vasari described Giorgione as a painter of Madonnas and portraits. The same description could apply to Raphael in the first decade of the 16th century. At the height of what later would be called the High Renaissance both young masters were responding to the great demand for sacred subjects like the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."
David Orme has developed a very fine site that brings together a great deal of information on the "Flight into Egypt" and its many legends.
*The source for the attributions and dating of the Raphael paintings in this post is Jean-Pierre Cuzin, "Raphael, His Life and Works," 1985.
**Mrs. Anna Jameson:" Legends of the Madonna," Boston, 1885.
My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".