The journey of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to the land of Egypt takes place under the cover of darkness. The fact that it happens ‘by night’ (Matthew 2:14) underscores the urgent note of danger and the threat of death. As the angel announces to Joseph, Herod is seeking to ‘destroy’ the child (Matthew 2:13).
Henry Ossawa Tanner was haunted by this story of flight, shaped by his formative years in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, of which his father was a bishop. He painted no less than fifteen versions of the story. Here, the fugitive character of the Holy Family is clearly foregrounded. With strong shades of blue and the use of shadows to intensify the drama, Tanner heightens the sense of forced migration. Mary’s donkey keeps close to the wall, moving slowly as if to avoid detection. The child is kept close to his mother’s breast, safely secured in her cloak, almost invisible. Joseph brings up the rear, fulfilling his traditional role as protector of the Holy Family. This is a family on the run, their ultimate destination uncertain.
Yet there are also visual clues that the fugitive family will find a ready welcome amongst the strangers they encounter. First, they are escorted by an anonymous figure, leading them through the darkened streets. The intensity of the light emanating from the lamp he carries, illuminating their path, is a reminder that this child too will be a ‘great light’ for the people dwelling in darkness (Matthew 4:16, quoting Isaiah 9:2). Second, the location of this scene is uncertain. Is it Bethlehem? Yet the family has apparently just passed through the gateway (suggested by the arch just visible in the background) into the town. More likely, then, they have arrived at their first port of call, offering a temporary respite from the dangers of Herod’s henchmen.
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
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”