The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1570, is a small oil painting on a prepared pine board. It is mostly a landscape representation with the sacred family as the figures within it. It demonstrates El Greco's newly acquired knowledge of the Venetian style of painting that was popular at the time due to the grand Venetian master, Titian.
Report by Karla Darocas, Hons. B. A. (KarlaDarocas.com)
Exclusive for SpainLifestyle.com
In El Greco's work, the Holy Family is depicted on their journey to Egypt, fleeing the persecution of Herod.
El Greco places the three essential characters of this story in a beautiful setting of rolling hills and the lighting suggests that it is early evening. Mary sits on a donkey, carrying her naked Child in her arms. The infant is depicted as chubby, healthy, and wriggling with curiosity as he seeks out his father.
Joseph is having to exert his bodily force in an effort to pull the hesitating donkey onto the bridge. This uncommon gesture emphasizes Joseph’s active role in the flight.
The small pine panel was coated several times with a mixture of animal-skin glues, resin and linen commonly known as "size". Once dried it was covered with more glue and chalk and sanded to a fine white finish.
This preparation allows for El Greco's landscape to clearly define his palette of ocher, an earthy pigment containing ferric oxide, typically with clay, varying from light yellow to brown or red; and blue ultramarine, a deep blue color pigment which was originally made by grinding lapis lazuli into a powder, which was the finest and most expensive blue used by Renaissance painters.
The clouds are light and fluffy suggesting a fine day. A warm oblique sunshine fills the scene with its own luminosity, generating a subtle succession of lights and shadows.
Mary wears her signature blue cloak with a red shirt underneath. Deeply rooted in Catholic symbolism, the blue of her cloak has been interpreted to represent the Virgin’s purity. It also labels her as an empress because blue was associated with Byzantine royalty. Her shirt’s red color signifies love, passion, and devotion—all traits connected with motherhood and exemplified by Mary’s presence at the Crucifixion.
Unlike many depictions of Joseph, who is a dull character that remains silent and in the shadows, Joseph is portrayed as the family man and protector taking action. He is still characterized as a man advanced in years, with grey hair, balding and with a beard, in keeping with Jewish custom, but he is not frail.
As the patron saint of marriage, Joseph’s image as a model patriarch took on a particularly more important role to the Catholic Church during the Renaissance.
El Greco pays his tribute to Joseph by dressing him in Roman style robes in gold, connecting him to the royal body of Christ and in blue to connect him to the purity of his virgin wife Mary.
They go to see the King of Jerusalem and ask him, Herod, where to find this special baby. Herod becomes paranoid that the child will threaten his throne, and seeks to kill him by ordering the massacre of all children, two years and under from in and around the village of Bethlehem in hopes of killing the child (Matthew 2:16–Matthew 2:18).
Luckily, an angel appears to Joseph, the father of Jesus, in a dream and warns him to take his baby and his mother into Egypt. The Gospel of Saint Matthew succinctly narrates this episode: When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up", he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him". So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-14).
Egypt was the logical place for them to go as it was outside the dominions of King Herod. Since, at this time, both Egypt and Palestine were part of the Roman Empire insuring that the roads were patrolled and relatively safe to travel.
Many Renaissance painter chose to paint the Massacre of the Innocence due to its complicated narrative and imagery, however El Greco, while expanding his studies in Italy, picked a more simplistic narrative of the sacred family on their journey to safety.
This painting was first mentioned in 1682, when it was at the Palazzo della Vigna, the Roman residence of Gaspar Ménedez de Haro, VII Marquis of el Carpio (1629-1687)
Learn more about the Life, Times and Works of El Greco by attending classroom presentations offered by SpainLifestyle.com in Benitachell * Adult Education for LifeLong Learners.