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The Flight into Egypt

The Flight into Egypt by Henry Ossawa Tanner [1859-1937]

The journey of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to the land of Egypt takes place under the cover of darkness. The fact that it happens ‘by night’ (Matthew 2:14) underscores the urgent note of danger and the threat of death. As the angel announces to Joseph, Herod is seeking to ‘destroy’ the child (Matthew 2:13).

Henry Ossawa Tanner was was the son of a former slave & pastor who fled the southern states for safety in the north later becoming Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The artist was haunted by this story of flight, He painted no less than fifteen versions of it. Here, the fugitive character of the Holy Family is clearly foregrounded. With strong shades of blue and the use of shadows to intensify the drama, Tanner heightens the sense of forced migration. Mary’s donkey keeps close to the wall, moving slowly as if to avoid detection. The child is kept close to his mother’s breast, safely secured in her cloak, almost invisible. Joseph brings up the rear, fulfilling his traditional role as protector of the Holy Family. This is a family on the run, their ultimate destination uncertain. Yet there are also visual clues that the fugitive family will find a ready welcome amongst the strangers they encounter. 

First, they are escorted by an anonymous figure, leading them through the darkened streets. The intensity of the light emanating from the lamp he carries, illuminating their path, is a reminder that this child too will be a ‘great light’ for the people dwelling in darkness (Matthew 4:16, quoting Isaiah 9:2). 

Second, the location of this scene is uncertain. Is it Bethlehem? Yet the family has apparently just passed through the gateway (suggested by the arch just visible in the background) into the town. More likely, then, they have arrived at their first port of call, offering a temporary respite from the dangers of Herod’s henchmen.

With thanks to father Patrick van der Vorst of ‘Christian Art’.

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1 Comment

  1. Mike Catling

    What must it have been like, indeed what is it still like, for a mother with a new born baby to be fleeing to an unknown destination in fear of her child’s life? The story and the painting reveal the vulnerability of both mother and child. Knowing who she has given birth to, who this child is, the burden of responsibility is unimaginable. For every mother there are greater or lesser degrees of such protective caring and responsibility. What must Mary have thought of a God who had declared her to be “a most highly favoured lady”? If her fearful journey was a sign of God’s favour what must God’s disfavour be like? What must any mother feel when her new born child is vulnerable and in danger because of a fearful situation whether it be caused by conflict, illness, homelessness or any other threatening situation? Mary identifies with every mother in such a predicament and with the Christ Child journeys with them through the darkness in the hope of a greater light leading them to whatever safety they are in need of. And if, as often happens, such a place is not found then another story and other depictions are required.

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