Veronese’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c.1572)

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt is rarely seen for what it is: a curious subject. First appearing in illuminations in the 14th century, its only Biblical mention is in Matthew (written in Greek) where we read that Joseph "took the young child and his mother by night and departed into Egypt."1 That's it. The Bible, though, is no more likely to be history than the Mona Lisa depicts Lisa. Both are allegory as Renaissance artists knew. Surprising today perhaps but Egypt had long been seen as the source of true philosophy and wisdom, both in the Renaissance and Plato's Greece. The Greeks were fascinated by Egypt's antiquity. Thus the infant Jesus, who represents our own spiritual re-birth, "goes" to Egypt at night to immerse himself in wisdom.2 Darkness signals a turn inwards, away from sunlight and the exterior world. In fact, the Bible from a historical point-of-view is famously silent on what happened to Jesus between the ages of 7 and 30. Scholars ask, where was he educated? How did he become so wise? The "night trip" to Egypt explains it.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Veronese, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c.1572) Oil on canvas. The John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida.

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Few but artists know that Joseph, a carpenter, is the iconic alter ego of the artist as a craftsman. That's why Veronese (right) depicted Joseph (left) as an older version of himself: bearded and balding with a beaked nose. The latter is more curved and slightly shorter but has a similarly large nostril. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of St. Joseph from Veronese's Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c.1572)
R: Detail of self-portrait from The Wedding at Cana (1563)

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And just as Joseph represents Veronese-as-craftsman so the Virgin symbolizes the artist's divine mind. One is an artisan, the other a poet. Together the androgynous duo make an artist. It was Mary who conceived their child and Joseph who "painted" it. Now try to imagine Joseph as a painter looking down at his canvas, one hand - with thumb extended - holding a round palette, the other with thumb and forefinger pressed together holding a brush to take paint from that palette. Also the knife - an allegorical paintbrush - rests on white fabric like a gessoed, unpainted canvas on Joseph's lap. Note how the shape of the opening in his red vest is a V for Veronese.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Veronese's The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c.1572)

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Above and behind the Virgin and Christ the trees also form a V. This one is positioned directly between the Virgin's head and her conception, Christ, below. Veronese thereby sees himself as a combination of Joseph's symbolism (craft), Mary's (the poetic mind) and Christ's (the finished painting). Art historians acknowledge that the shape of the trees must be meaningful but see them as prophesying Christ's crucifixion even though the diagonal trunks bear no resemblance to Christ's Cross.3 Not knowing the importance of letters in art they argue for a meaning that does not fit.






 

Captions for image(s) above:

Veronese, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c.1572)

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Lastly, the ox (right) cropped at the edge confirms Veronese's subject matter. The animal is the attribute of St. Luke, the patron saint of painters and does not normally feature in scenes of The Rest. It was not a part of the traditional story. Veronese probably included it to signal that the subject of his canvas is not a narrative but painting and the creative process. No artist then was likely to have missed it.




 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Veronese's The Rest on the Flight into Egypt

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Christ also represents the union of his parents' symbolism: craft (Joseph), spirituality (Mary).

Notes:

Endnotes to follow shortly......

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 05 Nov 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.