Flight to Egypt

The Flight into Egypt, Duc de Berry paintings

Painting of the journey to Egypt

Painting of the journey to Egypt

Warned by Joseph’s dream that King Herod was preparing to kill the Christ Child the Holy Family fled to Egypt.

The painter of the Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours wanted to make this episode the basis for a new sort of depiction of the Holy Family. He seems to have admired the fresco of the Flight in the Arena Chapel, which he might recently have seen. He himself was seeking greater movement and luminosity, not to mention a more intimate view of the world.

Flight into Egypt, Arena ChapelNotice how he showed the prints of hoofs and feet in the dust of the road. This was an innovation, and typical of a Northern artist. Notice too the averted face of Mary in the Book of Hours painting, something else that was new. It allowed the artist to show mother and son close, but also to give special prominence to the child.

It suggested to him also the possibility of a corresponding rotation of Joseph. The two turning figures are so powerful in their interrelated movement that they bring to mind later contraposto in the work of Donatello or Quercia.

The donkey appears especially quiet and meek. His soft hair is lighted, it seems, chiefly by reflection from the road. The Virgin is a broad, heavy figure, and the artist, feeling she needed more support than the little grey ass could give her, extended her mantle below it to serve as a vertical buttress. Notice the shattered pagan idols behind Mary. The mere passing of the Holy Family has caused these figures to collapse and fall.

This painting of the Flight has a masterful simplicity and harmonious colors of tan, gold, pale green, violet, and blue.

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The flight into Egypt map

Return to Galilee

What is an 'Angel'?

Paintings of angels


Herod massacres the Bethlehem children

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What event does this painting show?
  2. Who was King Herod, and why was he afraid of the babies in Bethlehem?
  3. How was Jesus saved from this slaughter?

Painting of the massacre of the Innocents

In the Belles Heures, the painter has presented the subject in two consecutive scenes. Enthroned in his palace King Herod, infuriated that the Magi have departed without giving him news of the Christ Child, hands to a kneeling soldier the order for a mass murder of all young boys born in the district of Bethlehem over the previous two years. A brutish-looking adviser stands beside the throne.

The massacre takes place against a landscape dominated by the walled city of Jerusalem on the horizon. A stunned young mother in blue has had her child snatched by a soldier who dangles him by the legs. A guard raises his scimitar to dismember a baby suspended above his knee.

The Mass for the Feast of the Innocents associates the victims with St. ]ohn’s vision in the Book of Revelation 14:1 ”. . . lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads.”

Not surprisingly, therefore, holy relics of the infant martyrs were particularly numerous at the time this painting was made. Ogier d’Anglure, a contemporary pilgrim, was shown a great cofferful when he passed through Venice, so it cannot have been difficult for the Doge to provide the Duke with one entire little Innocent and a leg complete with foot. In addition his inventories list a pair of legs joined at the waist, which we see here among the dismembered limbs. Gruesome.

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Joseph's story

Presented in the Temple

Presentation in the Temple

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Who are the three people in this painting?
  2. Where does this scene take place?
  3. What did Simeon predict that Jesus would be?

Painting of the Presentation of Jesus

Forty days after the Nativity the Holy Family came to Jerusalem so that Mary might be purified in accordance with the Law, and the Child might be presented in the Temple.

The blue/mauve altar in the painting above is placed in a rather odd triangular structure that looks out onto somber green hills. One broad arch spans three figures and a wall rises beyond the frame, apparently to a great height. The figures themselves are monumental.

The artist has represented only the main protagonists:

  • the Virgin holding her child above the altar,
  • Simeon “the just and devout” to whom it had been revealed ”that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2: 25, 26), and
  • the aged prophetess Anna, who holds a long beeswax candle (read her story at Anna, prophetess.

Other figures who usually appear—Joseph, a female attendant with the sacrificial doves, and the High Priest—are not included.

Simeon, his hands covered by the white and gold cloth, prepares to take the Child from his mother. In doing so he parts the legs in a manner that suggests the related scene of the circumcision. Jesus, the same robust child we have seen in the Nativity and Adoration of the Wise Men, seems understandably reluctant to go to the old man and clings to his mother’s neck – a homely touch painted by a man who obviously knew what real babies were like.

Simeon hails Christ as ”a light to lighten the Gentiles” and the taper held by the devout old Anna is a reminder that candles were blessed and carried in procession as part of the ritual of the feast of February 2nd, popularly known as Candlemas.

This miniature painting differs in style from the preceding ones of Mary in the Book of Hours, and it was probably painted later. The surfaces are more luminous, and the draperies show more lively curvatures than in any other of the paintings. Anna and Simeon are also unusually attenuated. The colors are wonderful, ranging from a soft tan, mustard, violet and rose to a subtly graded white and a superb clear blue.

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Joseph's story

Mary of Nazareth

Jesus lost at the Temple


Angels announce Jesus’ birth

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Why had the story of the shepherds and angels become popular at the time this painting was done?

Angels announce Jesus' birth

”And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid” (Luke 2: 9; see the gospel text for this story).

The Annunciation to the Shepherds was commonly represented as a separate scene only in the fourteenth century, and it then assumed a place in French Books of Hours. It became popular because it gave prominence to simple people who might otherwise have been overlooked: the theme of the Adoration of the Magi had concentrated heavily on the nobility.

According to the Duke’s version of the Meditations the shepherds looked up to see three suns that afterwards merged into one (the Trinity), and here the two herdsmen shade their eyes to watch three angels with golden haloes announcing the birth of the Messiah and singing the Gloria from their open book.

The angels, resting on a puffy mass of blue clouds, are linked to each other, to the book they hold, and to the shepherds. Green draperies and rose wings alternate with green wings and a rose cloak that is echoed in the rose hood of the shepherd below, dressed in the same buff as the center angel. The second shepherd wears a rough tunic of skin with a cape that seems to be made from the wool of the flock he has been guarding.

The hungry goat stretching to reach a higher branch in a tree has a long history in art – think of paintings of Moses finding a ram caught in the thicket. But the animal in this painting, scratching his head with a hind leg, is a lively detail added by the painter from fresh observation of nature.

A long lean whippet with a red collar, reclining but with ears pricked, looks as if he has wandered in from the aristocratic world to serve as a watch dog. Could it have been a favorite dog belonging to the Duke?

As usual the artist, following Florentine precedent, took care to maintain a balance at both sides of a central axis. It is marked here by the middle angel; slightly to the left lies the shepherd’s hat, whereas the shepherds themselves stand at the right. Toward the left, however, the city of Jerusalem appears at the horizon and, nearer the frame, there is a golden hill illuminated from above and crowned by the towers of Bethlehem.

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Joseph's story

What is an 'Angel'?

Paintings of angels

Mary of Nazareth


The Nativity – Duc de Berry paintings

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Why has the artist painted such a dilapidated shelter for the newborn Jesus and his mother Mary?
  2. How has the artist emphasized the poverty of the Holy Family at the birth of Jesus?
  3. And why would one of the shepherds by shown with bagpipes?

The Birth of Christ, Duc de Berry

According to the Duke de Berry’s French version of the scene, Christ was born in a humble shelter, the sort of shed used in bad weather to protect beasts of burden. The thatched roof, which began to show conspicuous holes in paintings of this period, is here exceptionally dilapidated. This was no whim of the artist. The ruined buildings in paintings of the Nativity were meant to symbolize the ruination and end of older forms of religion, after the entry of Jesus into the world. You can see more about symbolism in paintings at 40 Paintings of the Birth of Christ.

Through the exposed rafters the rays of the miraculous star shine on the Virgin and her Child. Mary, lacking a bed, sits humbly on the ground beside the manger. After the birth of the Child, according to the Duke’s Meditations that accompanied these paintings, Joseph sat “quite dejected because he was unable to provide the Virgin Mary with everything necessary.” The text also says that, as a carpenter, he did what he could to enclose the place for her protection.

Here he rests his head pensively on his hand after having made a small fire to heat a pot and to check the chill of December. You can see this same idea expressed in the charming painting of the Nativity by Conrad von Soest, at 40 Paintings of the Birth of Christ.

Usually the Virgin is provided with at least a cushion or pad but here she lacks even this simple comfort. Instead, she leans against the wicker panel behind her.

In Italian paintings a kneeling shepherd is usually present. Here two shepherds, less important than the sacred figures and therefore smaller, already adore the newborn Child. Tradition says that, to express their joy, they brought with them rural musical instruments, including a bagpipe. The shepherd who carries it here seems transfixed by the great star in the sky. The ox also looks up at it while the ass gazes at the Child.

Notice that the figures participate to an extraordinary degree in a broad geometric design, unprecedented in French painting at the time. Even the shepherd’s pointing gesture is part of this pattern. From it the two conical mountains ascend and diverge, creating a strong centripetal counterforce.

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Joseph's story

Mary & Elizabeth

The Visitation – Duc de Berry paintings

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Who are the figures in this painting?
  2. What are they saying to each other? What happened at this meeting?
  3. This painting is heavy with symbols: the halos, the book, the ruined castle, the stream, the colors of the women’s clothing … What does each signify?

The Virgin Mary and Elizabeth

Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth

After his greeting to Mary the Angel Gabriel told her that her aged cousin Elizabeth had miraculously conceived a son and that she was already in the sixth month of her pregnancy. “And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judea” (Luke l:39).

Medieval pilgrims to the Holy Land described the site of their meeting as a spring of fresh water near a ruined castle said to be Zachariah’s house, situated in a valley just off the road that led from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.

In this painting, we see the two figures near a high, arched entrance gate. The Virgin is a grave and graceful young woman clasping her rose-covered book (there were of course no books at the time of Jesus’ birth; writing was done on scrolls), whereas the aging Elizabeth has strong and homely features. The painter has heightened the contrast between the two women by differentiating their haloes, giving the Virgin solid gold and Elizabeth golden rays.

Elizabeth bends forward with outstretched hand, saying “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb . . . For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (Luke 1:42, 44).

The two figures are held closely together by the green peak that rises sharply behind, isolating them from the bare hills crowned by two walled towns that perhaps represent Bethlehem and the larger and grander Jerusalem.

The painting of Mary’s clothing is extraordinary. The green glistens with a golden yellow where it catches the light, and the improbable blue reflects the color of Elizabeth’s cloak.

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What is an 'Angel'?

Mary of Nazareth


Mary and the Angel Gabriel

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Many of the articles in this painting are symbols of something else. What symbols can you spot? What do they stand for?
  2. What message is the artist trying to send in the postures of the Angel Gabriel and Mary?

Mary and the Angel Gabriel

In this miniature painting (above), the Angel Gabriel, his wings moving and his cloak stirred, enters the Virgin’s chamber through the open arch and falls on one knee to ask her if she is willing to become the mother of the long-awaited Messiah.

As a messenger from God, the angel often carries a scroll or a staff. Here, however, he holds the large lilies that are usually placed in a vase beside Mary as a symbol of her perpetual virginity. Click on image below to see enlargement.

Mary and the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, Duc de BerryThe angel looks up and points to the dove descending in a shower of golden rays – the Holy Spirit, of course. The kneeling Virgin does not look directly at the angel, but casts her eyes down modestly. With equal humility she crosses her hands on her breast, as in Italian paintings of the period. The stars on her cloak suggest that she is already part of the universal plan of God, as the stars are.

The painting preserves the tradition that when the angel appeared the Virgin had been reading a Messianic prophecy from Isaiah: ”Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son . . .” Here she kneels before a lectern with an inscribed scroll that perhaps represents that text.

According to the apocryphal gospel of Pseudo-Matthew the Virgin was ”the best informed in the law of God . . .” In the miniature her lectern is appropriately topped by a statue of Moses holding the tablets of the Law.

 Grabow altarpiece, AnnunciationA book lies open on the lectern, and there are two more volumes below. Earlier French representations of the Annunciation show a single book; the open cupboard containing books beneath the lectern appeared earlier only in the Hannover altarpiece by Meister Bertram of Hamburg.

God the Father occupies a projecting balcony supported by a caryatid who may represent a prophet .

Although God the Father is a comparatively small figure his color, gray-violet, influences the design, reappearing in the ceiling, the shadows in Gabriel’s mantle, and the tiles of the floor.

The Virgin’s signature color, blue, is repeated in the exceptionally rich and strong border.

If you look at the image below, you will see that the border of the picture contains emblems we might expect: angels and prophets. But is also shows some rather odd items: swans, bears and even snails. These were emblems in the coat of arms of the Duc de Berry, and the artist tactfully included them as a tribute to the patron of his work.

Duc de Berry

Find Out More

What is an 'Angel'?

Mary of Nazareth

Childbirth at the time