© Tours, musée des Beaux-Arts, cliché Dominique Couineau
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, (Leiden, Netherlands 1606 – Amsterdam, Netherlands 1669), The flight into Egypt, 1627, oil on wood, 26 cm x 24 cm, Tours, France, Musée des Beaux-Arts, gift by Mme Benjamin Chaussemiche, 1950. Inv. 1950-13-1
Month of July
This representation of the flight of Jesus’ family into Egypt is truly unique. The first thing that strikes us is the small size of the painting. This suggests that the young painter, still in his early twenties, must have painted it for a client - whether lay or religious - who wanted to keep the work in his home for private devotion.
A second thing to notice is the choice to set the scene at night. Night is the time of darkness, the time of evil, the time of obscurity. This choice is not surprising, considering that Joseph had to leave his home in a hurry and turn his wife and child into exiles to escape Herod's murderous jealousy. The darkness that surrounds the Holy Family seems to refer to the much deeper darkness that governs the hearts of those who are against God's will, those who devote their lives to power and wealth.
A third element worth highlighting is the great luminosity emanating from the three figures, which contrasts sharply with what was said earlier about the darkness. Precisely because the scene is set at night, light becomes the protagonist of this small painting. This is accentuated both by the fact that there is basically no trace of landscape (only in the lower left-hand corner does there seem to be a backlit shrub) and by the dark shadow that Joseph, the mule and its two passengers cast on the ground to their right. As we know, in the Christian tradition (but not only there) light is associated with Jesus (“What has come into being in him was life, life that was the light of men; and light shines in darkness, and darkness could not overpower it” Jn 1:4-5) and was also the first word of God the creator (“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness. God called light ‘day,’ and darkness he called ‘night.’ Evening came and morning came: the first day” Genesis 1:3-5).
A fourth element that strikes us is the great poverty depicted in the painting: Joseph is barefoot, his clothes are coarse, the hats of the couple seem to be made from the same piece of cloth, their luggage is minimal. Certainly, this is a dignified form of poverty, but it also suggests the extreme need in which the Holy Family found itself and in which many people find themselves today; families, like Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus, forced to abandon their homes, their affections, their work, everything that until then had guaranteed security.
This is a small painting by Rembrandt, but - also because of the great skill of the Dutch painter - it is capable of opening our hearts and minds to great emotions and reflections!
As he had done with Mary, God revealed his saving plan to Joseph. He did so by using dreams, which in the Bible and among all ancient peoples, were considered a way for him to make his will known. […]
In the second dream, the angel tells Joseph: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (Mt 2:13). Joseph did not hesitate to obey, regardless of the hardship involved: “He got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod” (Mt 2:14-15).
Pope Francis, apostolic letter Patris Corde 3, 8 December 2020
(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)