The Flight into Egypt provided an opportunity for Vittore Carpaccio, like other Venetian artists of his generation (e.g. Giovanni Bellini, Madonna of the Meadow, c.1500, National Gallery, London), to experiment with idealized landscapes. The overall impact is impressive: rolling hills; jagged peaks; elegant trees; water calm as a millpond. But this landscape does far more than allow Carpaccio to showcase his artistic skills. There are hints of older biblical stories here, just as Old Testament narratives already saturate the Gospel text.
In the background on the far left of the panel, a prominent rugged mountain appears behind the vibrant tree which connects heaven and earth, the divine and the human. Is this merely a nod in the direction of the Dolomite Mountains, bordering the Veneto countryside to the north? Or does it recall that great mountain, Mount Sinai, the place of encounter between God and Moses after the departure from Egypt?
In the centre of the composition, a bridge straddles the river, reminding the viewer that water is a barrier, but one which can be crossed. God’s people passed through the water dry-shod as they left the land of Egypt on their Exodus journey to freedom. Later, they would cross the River Jordan, to enter the land of promise. The adult Jesus will also come to the Jordan to be baptized, on the verge of his public ministry. Carpaccio seems to have understood this well: Christ is the new Israel, whose journey to Egypt is but the first stage in a new Exodus, whereby he will ‘save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21).
But there is more. Joseph, veering off from the road, tramples on lush greenery, a common symbol of Edenic paradise in visual art (e.g. Giovanni di Paolo, The Annunciation and Expulsion from Eden, c.1435, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). Carpaccio’s richly symbolic landscape invites the following question, as it already hints at possible answers: what might this journey, ostensibly a flight from a paranoid tyrant, ultimately make possible?
Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown. 2003. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century (Washington: National Gallery of Art)
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.”