Matthew alone tells the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod. But what is the appropriate mood for contemplating this story? For Vittore Carpaccio, the note of urgent escape from death has receded far into the background. The pace of the journey has slowed. Neither Joseph nor the plodding donkey seem in any hurry. The stillness of the landscape, and the calm surface of the river, also evoke a sense of tranquillity for the viewer. There is time to rest, to linger. For God, not Herod, is ultimately in control. God has initiated the escape into Egypt, and God will bring Christ, his Son, out of Egypt once again.
In the Jewish and early Christian memory, Egypt, ‘the house of bondage’, was also the place of refuge. Countless Jews across the centuries had found a safe welcome among the people of Egypt (including, ironically, Herod himself). The same will hold true for the Holy Family. Yet Carpaccio has also left us with hints of that darker background story, fearful flight from danger. The face of the child appears disturbed as he gazes out at the viewer, as if seeking reassurance, or warning us of what is still to come. His mother, meanwhile, looks down mournfully at her child, her eyelids lowered, the corners of her mouth downturned. It is as if she has already become the Mother of Sorrows, standing at the foot of the cross. One tree, on the far right of the panel, is leafless and lifeless, evoking the ‘tree of shame’ (the cross) on which the adult Christ will hang on his return to the land of Israel. For Carpaccio, as for the evangelist Matthew, not even God’s Son is immune from fear, suffering, and death. His beginning foreshadows his end.