Journeys do things to people. Journeys can be literally life-changing, like the transformative experience of pilgrimage. But journeys can also be frightening, marked by uncertainty and anxiety, whose outcome and ultimate destination is in doubt. The flight into Egypt, now etched firmly on the Christian imagination, contains all these possibilities, and more.
Matthew’s narrative is elusive about so many aspects of this journey from Bethlehem to Egypt: its route, length, how the family were received at their destination, even the mode of transport (although the iconographic tradition almost universally introduces a donkey). It is precisely this elusiveness, however, which has enabled visual artists to explore the story in very different ways. Visual art is especially strong on that dimension of the biblical text often downplayed in scholarly commentary: inviting reader or viewer participation. This journey of a family of three becomes a journey in which others are at liberty to participate, according to their own particular circumstances. This raises the question: whose journey is it?
Vittore Carpaccio has grasped the connection between this journey and a more ancient journey: that of God’s people Israel. Matthew the evangelist had already emphasized this by evoking several Old Testament narratives. Jacob/Israel and his family, going down to Egypt to escape famine (Genesis 46). The Israelites, coming out of the slavery of Egypt at the Exodus, an event explicitly recalled in the prophecy that Matthew cites: ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’ (Matthew 2:15, quoting Hosea 11:1). Moses, fleeing Egypt to Midian (Exodus 2), only to return to lead the people from slavery to freedom. For the evangelist, this child embodies the whole history of the people into which he was born. Carpaccio has taken this even further, evoking also the lush green of the Garden of Eden in the grass on which Joseph tramples. The journey recalls the story of all humanity, created in the image and likeness of God, that likeness tarnished by sin and brokenness. This child is also the Second Adam, who will restore what was lost.
For William Holman Hunt, the journey of an infant fugitive has become the triumphal journey of the infant victors. Rewriting Matthew’s story, Hunt offers a bold commentary on that interwoven story of the holy innocents. The brutal slaughter of babies by a paranoid tyrant is re-imagined as a journey which turns the world’s assumptions upside down. This child, not Herod, is the king riding in triumph with his conquering armies. Even as a child on the run, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem as an adult is being anticipated. Almost hidden by the crowd of innocents to the left of Hunt’s painting is a second animal, the donkey’s colt. Matthew’s Gospel alone recounts that it was on two such animals that Jesus entered Jerusalem in the days before his crucifixion (Matthew 21:1–9). In Hunt’s composition, the children carry branches, as will those who welcome Christ on that fateful day in Jerusalem. This is the journey of the ‘little ones’, the ‘least of these my brothers and sisters’, the children to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs (Matthew 18:1–5, 10–14; 19:13–15; 25:40, 45).
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Holy Family invites participation from others who likewise find themselves in the position of migrants and fugitives. Migrants like Tanner’s own mother, a former slave forced to move to the northern United States as a child (Harper 1992: 79). In his painting, the faces of all three characters are indistinct, and surely deliberately so. This family could be any refugee family, forced to flee suddenly from the security of home and relatives. Indeed, flight from war, poverty, or persecution often renders those affected ‘faceless’, anonymous, statistics rather than names. The shadows Tanner casts on Jesus, Mary, and Joseph recall the shadowy existence of those forced to flee from certain death, or to hide from threatening authorities. It is the welcome of strangers, like the equally anonymous guide with the lamp, his face obscured by his headdress, which is able to restore the gift of personhood. Tanner’s visual interpretation offers the hope of places of temporary respite, communities where the fugitive can find a welcome, regain their name, and establish new relationships of family and friendship. The paradigm is set by Matthew’s story, where Jesus, referred to anonymously as simply ‘the child’, is ultimately revealed as a child-in-relationship: ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’. These words, originally spoken about God’s ‘son’ Israel (Hosea 11:1), now find a deeper fulfilment in God’s Son Jesus, whose journey is one of profound solidarity with his brothers and sisters.
Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown. 2003. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century (Washington: National Gallery of Art)
Harper, Jennifer J. 1992. ‘The Early Religious Paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner: A Study of the Influences of Church, Family, and Era’, American Art, 6.4: 69–85
Hunt, William Holman. 1885. The Triumph of the Innocents (London)
Luz, Ulrich. 2007. Matthew 1–7: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Rev. ed., trans. by James E. Crouch (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)
O’Kane, Martin. 2002. ‘The Flight into Egypt: Icon of Refuge for the H(a)unted’, in Borders, Boundaries, and the Bible, ed. by Martin O’Kane (London: Sheffield Academic Press), pp. 15–60