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Leaving Egypt

Comparative Commentary
Commentary by
Michael Banner

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’ (v.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 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.