Matthew 2:14–15, 19–23

The Return from Egypt

Commentaries by Michael Banner

Works of art by El Greco, Nicolas Poussin and Unknown Flemish artist

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Unknown Flemish artist

Christ on the Cold Stone, 1443, Polychrome wood, Hôtel-Dieu of Beaune, France; Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Journey’s End

Commentary by Michael Banner

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Read by Chloë Reddaway

‘Christ on the Cold Stone’ is the name given to a particular representation of Christ which enjoyed popularity in the piety of late medieval northern Europe. Such representations show Christ sitting on a stone, stripped, crowned with thorns, and marked with the wounds of his flagellation, awaiting his crucifixion. In this particular version, a skull by his left foot indicates that Christ is at Golgotha (‘which means the place of a skull’; Matthew 27:33). A heavy and tightly woven crown of thorns binds his head, while his hands and feet are bound by a sinuous rope.

Of course, the representation of a forlorn Christ on a bleak rock is not authorized by the Gospels, for in their telling of the story of Christ’s Passion there is no such pause in the proceedings. Instead, the representation is an attempt to summarise the Passion, as art historian Émile Mâle puts it, and indeed to summarise the meaning of Christ’s life taken as a whole: for it is as a prisoner that Christ most truly takes on the human condition in which we are ourselves tightly bound by our histories, circumstances, needs, desires, and longings. 

That Christ should end his earthly life as a prisoner is fitting, then, for the meaning of that life is in his sharing in the human condition, becoming a prisoner for the sake of prisoners. In many depictions of the child who travels from Egypt towards Israel, the child already sees or senses that his path lies finally towards Jerusalem (‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!’; Matthew 23:37), and thus contemplates the nature of his calling—not from bondage to the freedom of the promised land, as at the first exodus, but, at this second exodus, from safety to bondage.

Only for us, for whom this journey is undertaken, do the words, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’ (v.15), resonate with the joy of that first and original calling. For Christ, the calling is to the cold stone.

El Greco

Altarpiece with St Joseph and the Christ Child , 1597–99, Oil on canvas, 289 x 147 cm, Chapel of San José, Toledo, Spain; Bridgeman Images

Shepherding the Good Shepherd

Commentary by Michael Banner

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Read by Chloë Reddaway

El Greco’s Joseph defies the conventions observed in many depictions, in which a decrepit figure plays a merely supporting role in the doings of the Holy Family. Here Joseph takes centre stage, alone with Jesus, and he is a tall, lean man in his prime—the better to fulfil the responsibility he bears, for it is he who is instructed to, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel’ (Matthew 2:20).

Joseph, carrying a crook, shepherds the child on the journey. They make their way away from the city in the background, Toledo, El Greco’s home in his exile from Crete. However, this journey from exile is not joyous or even simply arduous, as any such journey might be—especially for those who, like these two, go barefoot. Joseph’s downward and humble gaze seems not so much outward as inward. He appears preoccupied, perhaps troubled; and he draws the child into his protective embrace. The child looks out at us rather solemnly and reaches out to his father—seeking his father’s protection, or perhaps offering a reassuring touch (or even reaching prematurely for the crook?). In any case, father and son are bound together in a solidarity of ‘tender sadness’ (Bronstein, 1991: 66) and mutual concern as they make their way under that threatening, glowering, sombre sky—as if both already sense the end of the journey on which they are set, hinted at by the blood-red robe of a martyr worn by the child.

And yet, in curious contrast to the gravity of their circumstances, there is a joyous and gravity-defying circus of tumbling cherubs above Joseph’s head, ready to garland him with laurels, wreaths, and flowers—tokens of heavenly esteem. And Joseph, Jesus, and the cherubs are all bathed in a bright light, which renders even more stark the contrast with the dark scene through which they move. The cause of the celebration is clear enough, for even as he leads the child towards Israel, Jerusalem, and death, Joseph is gloriously fulfilling his great responsibility to shepherd the Good Shepherd.



Bronstein, L. 1991. El Greco (Domenicos Theotocopoulos) (London: Thames and Hudson)

Nicolas Poussin

The Return of the Holy Family from Egypt, c.1628-38, Oil on canvas, 117.8 x 99.4 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London; DPG240, © By permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery / Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource

A Fateful Crossing

Commentary by Michael Banner

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Read by Chloë Reddaway

Joseph carefully lifts the Christ child into a boat as his mother oversees his embarkation. The boatman holds the boat steady against the current while his oar directs our eyes towards the sinister clouds which loom overhead. These clouds support the four cherubs who in turn support the weighty cross, which Jesus alone glimpses—awkwardly craning his neck to see what is above (and before) him. His parents are insouciant; yet the scene, with its clouds casting deep shadows, is full of foreboding. The boatman could be Charon, ferrying souls across the Styx. And the mournful donkey—already loaded for the fateful crossing—is not only marked on his back with a cross which echoes the one in the sky; he also refers us forward to the first donkey actually mentioned in Matthew (21:2)—the one which will carry Jesus into Jerusalem to face his Passion.

It is sometimes suggested that it is the age of the child in the picture which determines that this scene is the return from Egypt and not the more traditional depiction of the flight. But it is surely the picture’s ominous under- and over-tones which really settle the matter. The words of the Prophet Hosea ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ (Hosea 11:1) are found by Matthew to be fulfilled in Christ’s return to Israel (2:15). Yet, in Hosea this is a joyful exclamatory description of God’s great deeds at the exodus, but for Christ the calling out of Egypt is a call to the cross which looms over him. Israel is called from bondage and suffering in Egypt to the freedom of the promised land; Christ is called from safety in Egypt to bondage and suffering in Israel.

In his dream, Joseph hears an angel declare that ‘those who sought the child’s life are dead’ (v.20). The angel spoke the truth, but not the whole truth. For Christ the fulfilment of the prophecy of his calling out of Egypt is not a joyous, but a solemn moment.

Unknown Flemish artist :

Christ on the Cold Stone, 1443 , Polychrome wood

El Greco :

Altarpiece with St Joseph and the Christ Child , 1597–99 , Oil on canvas

Nicolas Poussin :

The Return of the Holy Family from Egypt, c.1628-38 , Oil on canvas

Leaving Egypt

Comparative commentary by Michael Banner

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Read by Chloë Reddaway

The Joseph of Matthew’s Gospel is, like the Joseph of the Old Testament, a dreamer. It is in response to messages conveyed to him in dreams by the angel of the Lord that he plays out his role in this story. It is on account of dreams that he marries the unaccountably pregnant Mary, removes his family to Egypt to escape the furies of Herod, and then brings them back, ‘that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son’ (2:15).

But Poussin and El Greco give us two rather different Josephs. In Poussin’s image, Joseph is no more perhaps (but no less) than an obedient servant. Carefully and dutifully, but nonchalantly, he lifts the child into the boat, seemingly unaware of the clouds and the cross which loom over his son. And his simple obedience is stressed by the Gospel of Matthew itself, for his precise fulfilment of what is commanded by the angel is reported by a careful repetition of the very words of the command: ‘“Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel” …  And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel’ (v.21).

However, the Joseph of El Greco’s picture—unusually depicted without Mary—is not merely obediently following angelic directions. His troubled visage and the sombre tonalities of the sky and landscape suggest that he has some understanding of the gravity of what he is asked to do; and that it is that understanding which binds father and son in this tenderly sad scene. We may imagine father and son sensing that their departure from Egypt is an exodus different from the first: even that it will lead eventually to a cold stone. Indeed, Joseph’s preoccupied and sad countenance is not far from the withdrawal and anguish of his son sitting in his deep dejection on the cold stone.

In El Greco’s picture then, Joseph has become a disciple, not just a servant—and it is not only the angelic celebration over his head which commends him to us. It is surely also the gaze which the child directs towards us, inviting our attention in the first place, but enquiring of us as well what we will make of this man who has so gloriously (the heavens proclaim) taken up a vocation to accompany him on his journey out of Egypt towards the cross.

On the cold stone, Christ does not seek to engage our attention. To his right and attached to his feet there is a small board topped with five or six spikes: a so-called ‘trip block’, a device which was designed to knock backwards and forwards between a prisoner’s feet or ankles and so add to their suffering. Here, the trip block lies idle, for Christ’s physical torture is presently suspended and is not the immediate focus of the image. Our senses are directed instead to contemplate his psychological pain, his anguish. As is typical of this image-type, Christ appears withdrawn and utterly alone: he is lost in deep thought and dejection. The pathos of the scene lies just in a lonely suffering which has despaired of any assistance or sympathy: ‘Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.’ (Psalm 69:20).

That El Greco’s Joseph should, at the beginning of this child’s journey, tenderly offer the child the protection and comfort he will not find at his journey’s end, merits the heavenly celebration above his head. But Joseph himself does not join in this celebration; it is as if the words ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’ (v.15) have become his own, and a lament.

Next exhibition: Matthew 2:16–18 Next exhibition: Matthew 4:1–11

Matthew 2:14–15, 19–23

Revised Standard Version

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.”


19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, 20“Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaʹus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”