Behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word. Matthew 2:13
Most Renaissance artists who portrayed the infancy of Christ focused on his birth. Paolo Veronese chose a different moment from a bit later in the story that added an unexpectedly domestic element to the life of Christ. Lennie Bennett, Times Art Critic
The artwork • Paolo Veronese, The Rest on the Flight to Egypt, circa 1580, oil on canvas, from the permanent collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.
The Egyptian detour • Of the four Gospels, only Matthew mentions the Egyptian detour. It's linked to the story of the three Wise Men, possibly Persian astronomers who followed a star portending the birth of a great king. Along the way they stopped to visit King Herod the Great (73 to 4 B.C.), a Roman ally and despotic ruler of Judea who wanted to rid himself of a potential rival. When the Magi, as they're also known, were warned in a dream about Herod's intentions, they didn't return with information of Jesus' whereabouts. Instead, they went home. Herod decided to exterminate all infant boys in Bethlehem. But Joseph, also warned in a dream, had already taken his family across the border. There is no extant record of the family's presence in Egypt or of Herod's slaughter but given his reputation for cruelty, it was certainly possible. The Wise Men's story is considered an important part of Matthew's Gospel as the first acknowledgement by Gentiles of Jesus' importance.
The artist • Paolo Caliari (1528-1588) was known as Veronese, a reference to his birthplace of Verona though he gained fame in Venice. Veronese is one of the Big Three of Venetian painters of the late Renaissance along with Titian and Tintoretto. Known as a master of color and theatricality, Veronese is often associated with mannerism, a loosely defined school that bridged the Renaissance and Baroque periods with a more stylized approach to figures and greater artificiality in the composition.
The painting • Veronese was a gifted interpreter of narratives and was famous in his time for his monumental paintings such as The Feast in the House of Levi (1573), one of the largest canvases of the 16th century. The Rest on the Flight to Egypt is smaller, measuring 93 by 63 1/2 inches, but it's packed with charming details. Mary begins to nurse Jesus while Joseph looks on. A band of angels takes care of domestic chores, hanging laundry on trees, harvesting dates for a meal, tending to the donkey. It looks like a picnic.
The sweetness and whimsy of the scene is deceptive, says Ringling curator Alexandra B. Libby. "There are quite serious allusions."
The palm trees are associated with martyrs and in Christ's case can stand both for victory (his triumphal entry into Jerusalem) and sacrifice.
The wooden posts beside the donkey suggest a cross formation. The baby appears to stare beyond Mary at the nail tethering the animal."
Notice, too, the empty white saddle chair and the small serpent next to it, an ominous sign.
A loaf of bread sits next to Mary's feet and Joseph hold a canteen, references to the Last Supper.
The paint • The painting is done in oil-based pigments. Oil began replacing tempera, an emulsion using eggs, in northern Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. Artists could work more slowly with oil since it didn't dry as quickly. It could be applied more thickly, producing richer, deeper colorations. Tempera was still used into the 16th century by Italian Renaissance painters but oils flourished in Venice probably because of its damp climate.
The signature: Veronese signed his name on the stone near the family, a mark of religious veneration and personal ego: The concept of an "artist" as a creative individual worthy of particular attention, even celebrity, only began in the Renaissance.
The painting's progress • The first record of The Rest on the Flight to Egypt comes in an inventory from 1708, when its owner, the decadent 10th Duke of Mantua died and much of his estate had to be sold to pay off enormous gambling debts. Previous owners are not known. It was sold in 1711 to Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine. The Palatinate was part of the Holy Roman Empire and spread through what is now Germany. Wilhelm was a voracious art collector whose superb holdings became the foundation of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, one of the oldest museums in the world.
The Veronese painting would have been considered important to the collection; the German economy was in ruins after World War I and perhaps the museum needed to raise money. But why it decided to put this particular work on the market in the 1920s is a mystery. At the time, John Ringling was on a buying spree for his new museum in Sarasota and was working with various European dealers to amass what would become a formidable collection of Baroque and Renaissance art. He purchased The Rest on the Flight to Egypt from the Alte Pinakothek in 1928 through Julius Bohler, a German dealer who gained later notoriety for making a fortune selling looted art to Nazi officials.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.