Why is El Greco's painting, the Flight into Egypt, c. 1570, so special? It is only a small oil painting on a prepared pine panel. It is mainly a landscape depiction with the Holy Family as figures in it. It shows El Greco's newly acquired knowledge of the Venetian style of painting, which was popular at the time due to the great Venetian master Titian.

* Report by Karla Ingleton Darocas, Hons. B.A. (KarlaDarocas.com)

In the work by El Greco, the Holy Family is depicted on their journey to Egypt, fleeing persecution by Herod.

El Greco places the three main characters in this story against a beautiful backdrop 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 chubby, healthy and wriggling curiously in search of its father.

Joseph has to use all his physical strength to pull the hesitant donkey onto the bridge. This unusual gesture underlines Joseph's active role in the escape.

The small pine wood panel was coated several times with a mixture of animal hide glue, resin and linen, commonly known as 'glue'. When dry, it was coated with more glue and chalk and sanded to a fine white finish.

With this preparation, El Greco is able to clearly define his palette of ochre, an earthy, iron oxide pigment, typically with tone varying from pale yellow to brown or red, and ultramarine blue, a deep blue pigment originally made by grinding lapis lazuli into a powder and the finest and most expensive blue used by Renaissance painters.

The clouds are light and fluffy, indicating a beautiful day. Warm, slanting sunshine fills the scene with its own luminosity, creating a subtle succession of highlights and shadows.

Mary wears her characteristic blue cloak with a red shirt underneath. The blue of her cloak is deeply rooted in Catholic symbolism and is interpreted as a symbol of the Virgin's purity. It also identifies her as an empress, as blue was associated with Byzantine royalty. The red colour of her shirt represents love, passion and devotion - all qualities associated with motherhood and exemplified by Mary's presence at the crucifixion.

In contrast to many portrayals of Joseph, who is a dull figure who remains silent and in the shadows, Joseph is portrayed as a family man and protector who becomes active. He is still characterised as a man of advanced age, 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 an exemplary patriarch gained importance for the Catholic Church during the Renaissance.

El Greco pays tribute to Joseph by dressing him in a Roman-style golden robe to associate him with the royal body of Christ, and in blue to associate him with the purity of his virgin wife Mary.

The biblical story says that on 28 December, a group of wise men from the East who knew astrology interpreted a heavenly sign that told them to come to Jerusalem and look for Jesus, the newborn "King of the Jews".

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).

Fortunately for Joseph, the father of Jesus, an angel appears to him in a dream and warns him to take his baby and mother to Egypt. The Gospel of Matthew describes this episode succinctly: 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 flee to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will be looking for the child to kill him". So he got up, took the child and his mother in the night and went to Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-14).

Egypt was the logical place for them to go, as it was outside King Herod's domain. Since both Egypt and Palestine were part of the Roman Empire at that time, the roads were patrolled and relatively safe.

Many Renaissance painters painted the Massacre of the Innocents because of its complicated narrative and imagery. El Greco, however, who deepened his studies in Italy, chose a simpler narrative of the Holy Family on their journey to safety.

This painting was first mentioned in 1682, when it was in the Palazzo della Vigna, the Roman residence of Gaspar Ménedez de Haro, VII Marquis of el Carpio (1629-1687)


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