« biochar | Main | most people aren't going to college »

February 3, 2009

Aert de Gelder, "Rest on the Flight to Egypt"

This painting, from about 1690, is one of my favorites in our new home town of Boston. (It's in the Museum of Fine Arts.) The "Rest on the Flight to Egypt" is an old subject for paintings, going back to the middle ages. It illustrates Matthew 2:12-14:

For some reason that I don't know, artists have (for many centuries) chosen to depict the little family pausing on the way to Egypt. That makes an acceptable subject for a Protestant, because it's a "history painting"--an illustration of something that really happened, according to the Bible. In contrast, a painting of the "Holy Family" or the "Virgin and Child with Saints" would be problematic from a Protestant perspective. Those extremely common subjects developed as Orthodox and Catholic devotional objects, as icons or stimuli to prayer and meditation. For Protestants, they verge on "graven images."

De Gelder (a student of Rembrandt) was a Protestant, but he has found a way here to imitate a "Holy Family" or a "Madonna and Child with Saint." Joseph resembles St. Jerome in a painting of a sacra conversazione. And (as my wife Laura notes) the Madonna's halo has migrated onto Mary's extraordinary circular, gold-rimmed hat.

I take no sides in the Protestant/Catholic debate about religious images. But I think the shift from a Madonna and Child to a history painting has produced wonderful effects in this particular work. Since the baby is not an object of veneration, he can act like a real infant--snuggling down into his mother's lap instead of being displayed upright. Joseph reads a grown-up book, presumably for the edification of the adults in the family--but he pauses to gaze affectionately at his newborn (holding his place with his finger). It's an affectionate representation of a human family, with subtle echoes of the grand Catholic tradition.

February 3, 2009 10:23 AM | category: fine arts | Comments


Site Meter