Artibus et Historiae no. 64 (XXXII)

2011, ISSN 0391-9064

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BEVERLY LOUISE BROWN - Travellers on the Rocky Road to Paradise: Jacopo Bassano’s Flight into Egypt

Jacopo Bassano’s Flight into Egypt in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is a work of unparalleled sophistication. The Holy Family’s escape from Herod implies movement and Jacopo’s continuity of rhythm propels the figures forward despite the seeming hesitancy of the three young boys accompanying them. They have been described as careless and profligate youth. This article looks again at these travellers and their role in The Flight into Egypt.

The travellers do not appear in the biblical text, but are mentioned in the apocrypha and were commonly found in depictions of the event. Jacopo included travellers dressed as shepherds in both his earlier versions of the theme (Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa and Toledo Museum of Art). The journey they have embarked on cannot be any easy one, for the road they travel unshod is covered in small sharp stones. The Holy Family’s arduous journey and the patience with which they met adversity were held as exemplars that pious Christians were encouraged to imitate in their own passage through life. Through spiritual meditation a Christian might become ‘an armchair traveller’ as he internalized the events of Christ’s infancy and Passion. Pietro Contarini’s poem Christilogos peregrinorum, written shortly after 1513, recounts how the author and three of his friends dressed as shepherds and accompanied the Holy Family into Egypt so that they might recover the true spirit of religion and bring it back to Venice. It is surely not coincidental that Joseph serves as the shepherd’s interlocutor, since he was venerated throughout the Veneto as a protector against military attack and invasion. However, the suggestion that Jacopo emphasized Joseph’s role as La Serenissma’s protector by basing his likeness on Doge Andrea Gritti is unfounded. Titian’s portrait bears only a superficial resemblance to Jacopo’s Joseph in the Toledo and Pasadena pictures. Titian’s picture was painted at least fifteen years after Gritti’s death and around a decade later than the Jacopo’s two pictures. From the mid-1540s Jacopo repeatedly used a drawing of a local peasant as a template for his depictions of Joseph.

In the Pasadena picture the travellers are accompanied by an angel with magnificent birdlike wings. In a sermon published in 1495, Fra Roberto Caracciolo asked why Christ would need a guardian angel. He concluded that a guardian angel was sent to point the way towards Christ’s Crucifixion and the promise of redemption and encouraged the listener to join the caravan of the stalwart travellers. In the Pasadena picture the angel points towards a tree stump, which is used as a visual premonition of Christ’s Passion. The shepherds at first glance seem to be false pilgrims who do not heed his gesture; one releases four cockerels from a basket while another selfishly guzzles the Holy Family’s provisions. However, cockerels were associated with Christ’s Resurrection and the promise of life after death. Like Saint Peter, who denied Christ three times before the cock crowed but later repented, this traveller may become a true pilgrim following the path that leads towards salvation. Likewise, his companion, who greedily drinks from a pilgrim’s flask, can be linked to the idea of salvation and redemption. His flask evokes the wine of the Eucharist and Christ’s sacrifice while his lance recalls the story of Saint Longinus, the soldier who pierced the side of Christ before deciding to follow in his footsteps.

As Fra Roberto explained, to follow the Holy Family on their pilgrimage prepares each of us for our own pilgrimage towards death. Jacopo’s Flight into Egypt is the pictorial equivalent of Fra Roberto’s sermon. It is a visual homily that asks the viewer to seek out the significant meaning of details. Its imagery reflects the changing religious climate of pre-Tridentine Italy; a time fuelled by fervent debate and passionate preaching. It is within this context that the picture’s didactic role as a meditative guide to the central mystery of the Eucharist can be best understood.

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