Saturday, April 07, 2007

His winged Monitor

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

Matthew, 2, 13-5

I suppose I had seen this painting before on the WGA, but came across a far better scan of it on the excellent Giornale Nuovo,

Elsheimer’s (now I see it properly) beautiful ‘Flight into Egypt’. The WGA also has other artists handling the theme, while Olga’s gallery at

includes the subject in the topical index.

But I don’t think that any approach the quality of Elsheimer’s version, with the Holy Family benighted, beneath a sky which seems to me to be ostentatiously unsupernatural. It is the night sky as people must have known it then (the painting dates from 1609), with the Milky Way very apparent: but no glories, no angels, nor cherub heads. Many painters take their cue from the angel that appears to Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel, and add in a set of celestial companions. This Holy Family are alone, traveling rather than resting, and heading for the painting’s left border (rather than the right). But they are certainly travelling South: the Great Bear, accurately seen at the top right, points as it must to Polaris over their shoulders. Elsheimer gives Joseph more dignity than the rather blockish (bald, bearded) senior citizen most artists come up with when prompted to imagine a Jewish carpenter married to the B.V.M. I cannot work out what it is that, held like a pen, Joseph is holding near the child’s hand.

Odd, too, are the shepherds with the fire at the left: that swaying ascent of sparks, and the goat on its pinnacle of rock, combine make these otherwise quite innocent figures look like an allusion to a witchcraft scene. A full moon reflected in water, wind-burnished stars, dark trees, sparks from an open fire: by these means Elsheimer communicated mystery and peril to the viewer. A New Historicist would say that a circulation of social energy makes the fireside scene at the left resonant.

There's a lot of scholarship on the painting: Anna Ottavi Cavina was interested in the faint chance that Elsheimer knew something extra about the Milky Way from Galileo, who would publish his telescopic findings in the year after Elsheimer's work, and Keith Andrews riposting in a long series of commentaries. Apparently Elsheimer would never part with this picture.

Not a common subject in poetry: there’s a Southwell poem on the subject, and I found in Joseph Beaumont’s Psyche, Canto 8, ‘The Pilgrimage’, a long excursus by the poet on his namesake’s biggest biblical moment:

Now therefore as in Slumber's arms they lay
(For 'twas high midnight) Joseph's winged friend
Rousing his soul up by a mystic ray
Bids him his speedy flight to Egypt rend;
For Herod's spite contrives to slay, said he,
The Infant, and in him thy Wife and Thee.

This said; his nearest way the Angel took
Homewards, loud fluttering as he mounted up:
The noise made Joseph start; who strait awoke;
But his wing’d Monitor had gain’d the top
Of heav’n, and in the spheres inclosed was
Ere Joseph's following eye could thither press.

Yet by his blessed influence left behind
Th’instructed Saint the Spring entirely knew;
The privileg’d eyes of his religious mind
Had long acquainted been with Him, and now
He doubts not but 'twas his dear Guardian, who
Had taught him oft in straits what he should do.

Whilst by her sable curtains Night as yet
Muffled up Heav’n, and kept the World in bed;
Into his cloths he leapt, and made all fit
For his long journey: On the Ass he spread
His Coverlet, and his best Pillow (sweet
And cleanly hay) afforded him to eat.

The Beast thus baited; He his Axe, and Saws,
His Planes, Rules, Mallets, and his other store
Of busy honest Implements bestows
Close in his Bag, the treasury of his poor
Industrious subsistence; which he ties
Fast to his staff, and on his shoulder tries.

Which done; two bottles (all the good man had)
Fresh filled at a neighbour fountain, he
Hangs on his girdle, with his pouch of bread:
With all things thus accouter’d, reverently
He stepped to the bed where Mary lay,
Crying, Arise; Heav’n calleth us away.

When She the business heard, and saw how He
Had all his honest sumpture ready made;
Far be it, she replied, that I should be
At any hour to follow Heaven afraid:
Or loitering for the morning’s light should tarry,
Who in my arms my fairer Day shall carry.

I can be nowhere lost, dear Babe, while I
Travel with Thee, who never canst depart
From thine own home: so far thou canst not fly,
But thine own Land will meet thee still, who art
By thine eternal Right, the Prince as well
Of Ham, and Egypt, as of Israel.

… This early Master thus the noble Art
Of Patience 'gan to teach his world below;
To sanctify all Persecution’s Smart,
And make it by his owning glorious grow:
Who but new-born, designed is to die,
And long ere he can go, is fain to fly.

… O pity then thy Lord … who though
Spurr’d on by fear, was forc’d to use a pace
Below the name of speed; whilst Joseph, who
Himself was laden, leads the heavy Ass.
He led him, and although he made no stay,
Alas his very going was Delay.

For on his breast a thousand massy Cares
More sadly sate, than on his back the load
Of all his Tools: what thoughts of Herod's fears!
What studies how to 'scape the full-eyed Road!
What tenderness to keep the Mother warm!
What dainty dread that God should take no harm!

… There did the careful Mother light, to give
Her Son his diner from her lovely breast;
Whom with right seemly welcome to receive
Kind Earth those sweetly-swelling Cushions drest.
Where’r you see th’officious flowers meet
In such a junto, know it was her seat.

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