Rest on the Flight to Egypt

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  • Oil on Canvas: 1596
  • 133,5 x 166,5 cm
  • Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome

The Council of Trent issued a number of decrees which prohibited artists from treating many popular legends which were now considered improbable. The story of the Holy Family's flight&emdash;only briefly sketched out in the Biblical account&emdash;survived the strictures of the Council and often appeared in painting from the end of the sixteenth century. Most favored was a representation of the holy family resting, wearing from their travels. Caravaggio's idyllic painting is an individualistic representation of this.

The artist ingeniously uses the figure of an angel playing the violin with his back to the viewer to divide the composition into two parts. On the right, before an autumnal river-front scene, we can see the sleeping Mary with a dozing infant in her left; on the left, a seated Joseph holding the musical score for the angel. Contrasting the unlikelihood of the event is the realistic effect of depiction, the accuracy of details, the trees, the leaves and stones, whereby the total impression becomes astonishingly authentic.

The statue-like figure of the angel, with a white robe draped around him, is like a charmingly shaped musical motif, and it provides the basic tone for the composition. It is an interesting contradiction&emdash;and at the same time a good example for the adaptability of forms.

There is no apparent precedence for a music-playing angel to make an appearance in the story of the flight into Egypt. Charming is Caravaggio's decision to actively involve St Joseph in the music-making.


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