Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Versions of the biblical episode on the flight into Egypt were very popular during the Renaissance. Although mentioned only briefly in the Bible, apocryphal legends were popular and formed the basis for most of the depictions, especially of the so-called Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Netherlandish masters like Memlinc and Gerard David led the way, and their versions could even be found in the homes of Venetian patricians. they also made their way to the New World.

Gerard David (c. 1460-1523)
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c. 1510.
Oil on panel, National Gallery, Washington

A version by David, now in Washington’s National Gallery, is described as one of his „loveliest and most peaceful“ creations. Indeed, it is so lovely that reproductions can still be found featured today in Catholic image sales catalogs. For years my wife and I had one of these reproductions hanging in our hallway without even realizing what it was.

In this version David puts the Madonna and Child in the center sitting on a rocky formation that must be the remains of the Egyptian idols and temple that, according to legend, crumbled on the entrance of the child into Egypt. The Madonna wears her traditional blue and red. The Child holds a bunch of grapes symbolic of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Joseph is in the background using his staff to get fruit from a tree. David dispenses with the bending palm of legend and Joseph does not appear to be very old. His pilgrim’s basket is at the feet of the Madonna. The Ass is off to the left.

In this version the Madonna is not nursing but in versions in New York’s Metropolitan Museum and in the Prado, David depicts her in the act of nursing. In the Metropolitan version the Madonna nurses in the foreground while the actual flight is depicted in the background.

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Metropolitan Museum,

 

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Prado

In her excellent but unfortunately unpublished 1975 doctoral dissertation Sheila Schwartz noted the popularity of the subject of the Rest.

This composition provided the basis for a new type of Rest—the ‘background’ or ‘fringe’ Rest, where an image of the Virgin and Child in a landscape is transformed into a Rest on the Flight by the addition of Joseph in the middle or far distance, performing his by-now traditional duties of plucking the fruit, getting the water, or even tending the donkey….this composition is most often used by Memlinc’s successor at Bruges, Gerard David…. In David’s many versions of the Rest (and in the shop replicas) the Virgin can be full-, three-quarter, or half-length, and the subject indicated either by Joseph alone or by the whole Flight into Egypt in the background. The frequency of this composition suggests that the David shop was turning out these small Rests (they average ca. 35 x 50cm.) to satisfy a market demand for private devotional images. *

In my interpretation of Giorgione’s Tempest, I have argued that many of the details in traditional depictions of the Rest on the Flight can be found in that famous painting. We see a nursing mother; a man off to the side; ruins in the mid ground; and dark clouds in the background. Giorgione had the audacity to paint the nursing Madonna in the nude, but if he had clothed her, no one would ever have failed to recognized his painting as a version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

###

Sheila Schwartz, The Iconography of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, New York University, Ph. D., 1975, p. 121.

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