“Flight into Egypt”, Jacopo Bassano, c.1544, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena. The Holy Family is on the move. Behind them is the familiar landscape of Bassano del Grappa where the artist lived. But here they are led by an angel and accompanied by three young men, two details not mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. But none of these three companions seems to be in much of a hurry. Other things distract them. The one on the left is releasing four live cockerels from a basket. The next is drinking and the third one, although almost completely hidden from view by the donkey, clearly has his back to the Holy Family but looks back towards his companion. Are these three of shepherds who have also decided to go to Egypt? If so they do share sense of urgency we see in the movement of Joseph, his donkey and the angel. There are many other details in this work and each open to various interpretations. Between the legs of Joseph and the angel there is a dog. To whom does he belong? Is it one of the three companions? Or is it Joseph? Or is it the angel? In the background there are tiny figures who going about their daily tasks. These villagers are unaware of the terrible event that will unfold when Herod’s men arrive to slay all the first-born sons in the area. We do not see what Breughel showed us in his “Massacre of the Innocents” (1565-67). Set against the backdrop of Spanish rule and the eighty years war, soldiers poured into a Netherlandish town and spilt the blood of the innocent children on the winter snow. Here nobody kneels in the snow and pleads for the life of a child. Bassano’s painting is focused on the biblical story of how Joseph was told to flee from Bethlehem, but his painting is a retelling of that story in the context of his time and place, and with a different emphasis. The dominant focus is on their movement across the canvas. But it was also true that in the region around Bassano there were pockets of Protestantism and many sympathisers. This picture can be read as an affirmation of what are key elements of Catholicism within the motif of a life’s journey. The angel leads the way, as a guide for the Holy Family, but also reminding the viewer of the Catholic belief that each of us had a guardian angel to lead and guide. The angel points to the stump of a tree. It is almost in Joseph’s path. Such stumps were a common in the art of the Veneto and beyond, as symbols of the death of Christ on the cross. From it, a fresh shoot is growing and so we are reminded of the life that comes through his death. It is a fig, which, of course, recalls the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. Near the virgin and child there is an olive tree which might recall for some the Mount of olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ, who in this scene escapes the soldiers, will eventually be arrested. Perhaps the cockerels are there to remind us of the passion and of how St Peter denied Christ. And the man is kneeling, as Peter will do before Christ, saying, “Leave me Lord for I am a sinful man It strikes me that these three would-be companions of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are leaving the familiar as Peter and the other disciples would leave their nets to follow him. It is quite remarkable and a bit incongruous that the one who is drinking is holding a spear, whereas the other two and Joseph each have a walking staff. Is he one of Herod’s soldiers, now come to faith? Or is he rather a precursor of the soldier who pierced the side of Christ with a lance and in the tradition was named Longinus, who saw blood and water flow from the wound and came to faith. And in fact is drinking wine and not just water so that in his evident thirst we see the great gift of the Eucharist as food for our journey in this life?
Jacopo Bassano had painted this scene at least twice before. In each version, he includes the three companions. It is only in this version that the three seem so distracted. Are they there to speak to us of how we relate to our journey? The first on the right may tell of how our faith can be weak and fail us, the second of our need for the nourishment of both word and sacrament and the third of how we sometimes focus on others and what they do rather, than what we should be doing. If the dog goes with the angel then this is a reference to the great journey of Tobias and of how by his faith in the guiding hand of an angel all turned out well in the end.
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