Francisco de Zurbarán, (Fuente de Cantos, Spain 1598 – Madrid, Spain 1664), The Flight into Egypt, 1630-35, oil on canvas, 150 cm x 159 cm, Seattle, Art Museum
Month of April.
The episode of the flight into Egypt is reported only in the Gospel of Matthew: “After they [the Magi] had left, suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, 'Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.' So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead” (Mt 2:13-15a).
There are not many moments in the Gospels in which the Holy Family is mentioned in its entirety: the birth and the episodes connected with it, the presentation in the Temple, Jesus as a twelve-year-old boy found among the doctors in the Temple, the brief mention of the normality of life in Nazareth and, of course, the flight into Egypt are the only ones coming to my mind. This episode is one of the most dramatic because it is sudden, unexpected and full of unknowns. Joseph is the protagonist of it: warned by the angel, he organises the long and demanding journey to keep safe his family and above all Jesus, to keep him away from Herod's murderous fury.
The great Spanish painter offers us a tender depiction of the journey to Egypt. The cloud-filled sky makes everything dark and seems to emphasise the fatigue and pain that, although hidden, must surely have accompanied the hearts of these exiles.
The characters are represented in an essential way. Mary and the baby Jesus have found their place on the back of a donkey. Joseph walks barefoot alongside, slightly behind them, as if to indicate that the important characters are his bride and son. The clothes are modest, poor but dignified. We are struck by the pink tones of Mary's dress and Joseph's tunic; the magnificent straw hat worn by the Madonna also gives the scene a contemporary, everyday touch. The focus of the painting is on Jesus and his gaze, staring at us viewers, which is also capturing the gaze of his mother and father.
Francisco de Zurbarán, who in addition to being a great painter was deeply religious, mostly worked for the most important religious orders of Seville in his time (Dominicans, Trinitarians, Franciscans, Carthusians, Mercedarians). Finally, I would like to point out that in the 18th century this canvas was certainly in Lima, Peru, a country – along with Mexico - in which Zurbarán found an interested market for his creations.
His religiousness was influenced by Spanish Quietism, a religious movement with a mystical background that taught inner withdrawal, penitential practice, and an attitude of total and pure contemplative abandonment which the faithful must adopt before God, to adore him, love him and serve him.
Let our hearts be filled with the same fervour that animated the painter. In these times, made difficult and tiring by the pandemic, let us look with love at the Holy Family, migrant and refugee in Egypt, let us ask for protection and comfort, and let us entrust our wishes and our families.
The Gospel does not tell us how long Mary, Joseph and the child remained in Egypt. Yet they certainly needed to eat, to find a home and employment. It does not take much imagination to fill in those details. The Holy Family had to face concrete problems like every other family, like so many of our migrant brothers and sisters who, today too, risk their lives to escape misfortune and hunger. In this regard, I consider Saint Joseph the special patron of all those forced to leave their native lands because of war, hatred, persecution and poverty.
Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter Patris Corde 5, 8 December 2020
(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)