Matthew 2:13 An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt…
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Rest on the Flight into Egypt, engraving, c. 1470-75, Martin Schongauer, 1430 -1491
Johannes Guttenberg invented moveable type and printed the Bible not long before Martin Schongauer engraved, “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” but since most people could not read, art remained an essential means of learning stories of the Bible. During the fifteenth century the range of subjects expanded widely and stories about Mary were enhanced with lore. In addition to events such as the Annunciation and the Nativity, stories based on tradition often were included in illustrations of her life.
When Herod learned the “King of the Jews” had been born he was troubled and ordered all males who were two years old and under in Bethlehem and its region to be killed. When an angel warned Joseph of Herod’s plan, “…he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod” (Mat. 2:14). Schongauer’s engraving is based on an account from the non-canonical book, The Gospel of Pseudo Matthew, which tells of a rest stop taken while the family was on their journey. After three days, Mary was tired, hungry, and thirsty so they stopped under a date tree; Mary looked up at the fruit but could see that it was too high to reach. The baby Jesus said, “O tree, bend thy branches and refresh my mother with thy fruit.” Schongauer depicts five angels bending the tree thus allowing Joseph to reach the dates. Jesus then caused water to flow from the roots of the palm tree and the family was refreshed.
It was a common practice for artists of this time to include symbolic content in their work. Some of the flora and fauna in this print may seem gratuitous to us now but in its day the meaning would have been understood. The stag, a symbol for Christ and a destroyer of serpents, is standing watch through the trees in the background. It was believed a stag sheds its horns and then renews them after drinking from a spring – likewise people who drink from the spring of the spirit shed their sins and are renewed. In the right foreground, the dandelion, a symbol of Christ’s passion, is a reminder of the future that awaits the child. The lily at the left foreground is a symbol of Mary’s purity, and to the far left is a dragon tree. Two lizards are on its trunk and one is approaching it. The presence of lizards, serpents, and dragons represents the devil and lurking danger. At the very top of the tree is yet another symbol; a parrot. Because a parrot has the ability to fly and talk it symbolizes a messenger and is associated with the angel that brought word of the Immaculate Conception to Mary. In paintings of Mary, a parrot is sometimes placed by her ear as though it has just said, “Ave Maria.” When not with Mary, a parrot may be placed high in a tree (as here in the dragon tree) where it can not be reached by serpents.
Hovak Najarian © 2013