The popularity of the “Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt” became an important factor in the development of landscape in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Artists, especially in the Netherlands, had to deepen and broaden their landscape background in order to incorporate the very popular apocryphal infancy legends into their work . Depictions of the Rest by these “northern” artists found their way into the palaces of Venetian patricians. Marcantonio Michiel even noted a depiction of “Our Lady with St. Joseph in the desert” by John Scorel of Holland in the home of Gabriele Vendramin, the owner of Giorgione's Tempest.
|Joachim Patenir: Rest on the Flight into Egypt|
Oil on panel, 1518-1520, Prado.
Joachim Patinir ( 1480-1524) painted many versions of the Rest. One of the best is in the Prado. The Madonna, dressed in blue and white, sits on a rocky outcrop nursing her Child. St. Joseph is off to the left gathering food for her to eat although his pilgrim's staff and sack are featured in the foreground. Behind the Madonna is what appears to be rocky rubble but the large stone ball indicates the remains of the Egyptian idols that collapsed on the arrival of the Child into Egypt. According to Emile Male, the pioneering nineteenth century art historian, the legendary “Fall of Idols” was a commonplace in depictions of the flight into Egypt.
Northern artists like Patinir usually included episodes from the very popular apocryphal gospels in their paintings. In addition to the “Fall of Idols” Patinir depicted the legend of the “wheat or corn field” in the background. Here is an account of that charming legend told by Anna Jameson in her own inimitable way.
“In many representations of the Flight into Egypt, we find in the background men sowing or cutting corn. This is an allusion to the following legend:--
When it was discovered that the Holy Family had fled from Bethlehem, Herod sent his officers in pursuit of them. And it happened that when the Holy Family had traveled some distance, they came to a field where a man was sowing wheat. And the Virgin said to the husbandman, “If any shall ask you whether we have passed this way, ye shall answer, ‘Such persons passed this way when I was sowing this corn.” For the Holy Virgin was too wise and too good to save her Son by instructing the man to tell a falsehood. But behold, a miracle! For by the power of the Infant Saviour, in the space of a single night, the seed sprung up into stalk, blade, and ear, fit for the sickle. And next morning the officers of Herod came up, and inquired of the husbandman, saying, “Have you seen an old man with a woman and a Child traveling this way?” And the man, who was reaping his wheat, in great wonder and admiration, replied “Yes.” And they asked him again, “How long is it since?” And he answered, “When I was sowing this wheat.” Then the officers of Herod turned back, and left off pursuing the Holy Family….”
Mrs. Jameson added a little aside that could serve as a reminder for scholars even today.
“By those unacquainted with the old legend, the introduction of the cornfield and reapers is supposed to be merely a decorative landscape, without any peculiar significance.” *
In his seminal study of Netherlandish art Max Friedlander argued that the need to include these stories had an important role in the development of landscape.
“The lovers and buyers of Patenier’s pictures were not satisfied with the effect as a whole, they wanted to read in the picture, they sought in it the leisure of a walk full of varied interest or a journey of discovery. If at every turn in the road they came upon adventure, discovered figures to interpret, relationships to trace, all the more satisfied did they feel….” **
In a 1975 unpublished doctoral dissertation Sheila Schwarz also pointed out that these stories created a new justification for landscape. Patenier had to expand and deepen the landscape in order to accommodate these little stories. “Then Patenir studded his landscapes with vignettes whose presence further authorizes the expansion of the setting.” ***
In the left background of Patenir’s painting we see the city representing Judea from where the Holy Family has fled. Notice the bridge leading out of the city. Then moving to the right we see the newly grown cornfield and the farmer encountered on the journey. In the foreground Madonna and Child have found safety and rest. Click on the Prado link above to zoom in on the details.
Finally, I have argued in my paper on the Tempest that the nudity of the Woman in the Tempest was Giorgione's idiosyncratic way to depict the Immaculate Conception of the Madonna. Patenir dressed his nursing Madonna not in her traditional red and blue but in blue and white, colors which would later become the standard in depictions of the Immaculate Conception. In addition, Patenier illuminated the Madonna as if to suggest the woman "clothed with the sun" from the Book of Revelation.
Below find other comments from Max Friedlander on Patenir and the Prado Rest.
Patenier was a landscape painter, perhaps the first Netherlander to regard himself, and to be regarded, as a landscape painter, like Albrecht Altdorfer in Germany. Therein lies his fame. Durer, who was on friendly terms with him, calls him the ‘gut Landschaftsmaler’ (the good landscape painter). How highly the specialist was valued is made abundantly clear by the fact that two of his greatest contemporaries, Quentin Massys and Joos van Cleve, collaborated with him: they painted the figures and he added the landscape….
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt in the Prado is a mature masterpiece. From the plants in the foreground, studied with loving insight and botanical accuracy, to the dusky masses of foliage in the middle ground, from the fancifully constructed Romanesque temple buildings to the blue distance, everything is scrupulously worked out, abundant and rich. The principal figure, the Madonna in a light cloak, firmly outlined but with a softly flowing line, seems a little out of keeping with the whole.
A powerful mood is emitted from this panel; though descriptive and didactic, it seems imbued with poetry.
These last words could also apply to the Tempest.
*Anna Brownell Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, as Represented in the Fine Arts, Boston and New York, 1885. pp. 359-360.
**Max Friedlander, From Van Eyck to Bruegel, London, 1956, pp. 79-81.
***Sheila Schwartz, The Iconography of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, New York University, Ph. D., 1975, p. 124.