There is a dreamlike quality to William Holman Hunt’s depiction of the flight, particularly in the presence of the holy innocents joining the travellers on their journey towards Egypt.
Neither Joseph nor the donkey seem aware of this mysterious band of travellers which now surrounds them. The infant Christ, by contrast, sees his fellow infants clearly, and reaches out to them in solidarity. The innocents, however, though presumably aware of Christ’s presence, are more concerned with investigating their new existence, or resuming the games cruelly interrupted by their murderers. Mary smiles, as she looks downwards, her maternal gaze apparently directed towards her newly-expanded family.
The children themselves are in various stages of ‘reality’, those at the upper left barely awake from their own dreaming. Do they exist only in a visionary world, or also in our world?
The large bubble in the centre foreground contains an image of the tree of life, a promise of paradise restored. But bubbles can so easily be burst; hence their frequent use in Vanitas paintings as symbols of transience. Is this, then, just a dream? Or might Hunt be challenging that qualifying just? For it is as the result of a dream that Joseph flees to Egypt. Another dream directs the eastern Magi to return home ‘by another way’, thus enabling Christ’s escape from Herod (Matthew 2:12). Pilate’s wife will later be troubled by a dream about the adult Christ, though her warnings will fail to preserve him from death (Matthew 27:19). Matthew’s Gospel reiterates how dreams are part of the very fabric of how God communicates in this world. Hunt’s painting likewise proposes that it may be in the world of dreams that one comes to see the world as it truly is.
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.”