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Egypt in the Alps

The threat and the story

Michelangelo felt threatened - incredibly threatened - by paintings such as this one by Pieter Bruegel. The demand for these beautiful pictures was by no means limited to the Netherlands, or even Northern Europe. Everyone, all over Europe, wanted these precious Flemish landscapes - including the ruling Italian families who were commissioning works from Michelangelo. In 1535, Federigo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua, bought 120 Flemish landscapes. These landscapes were often commissioned by Italians and imported into Italy in large numbers. Italians - patrons and artists alike - acknowledged that Netherlanders had a special gift for painting landscape. Titian and Tintoretto even employed Netherlandish artists in their workshops to paint the landscape backgrounds of their works.

This painting of 1563 shows the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. The Gospel of St Matthew relates that after the Magi had come to adore the Christ child, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with the child to escape the soldiers sent by Herod to kill Him. The subject was a very popular one amongst artists, who essentially used the Biblical narrative as little more than a pretence for painting landscape, which in the early sixteenth century was just beginning to emerge as an independent genre, and was certainly considered to have a much lower status than the higher genres of Biblical or historical subjects, or scenes from classical mythology. Usually they depicted the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, and painted a frontal view of Mary and the Christ child, who dominate the scene, with an extensive landscape behind them.

In this picture, on the other hand, it is the landscape that dwarves the figures. Yet they are made conspicuous by Mary’s red cloak. Her and the Christ child are on a mule being led through the wilderness in the foreground by Joseph. The forward strain of his body emphasises that the group is moving. An idol is falling from the willow trunk on the right, signifying the defeat of Paganism by the coming of Christ. If you click on the image to enlarge it, you will see some travellers in the lower left corner crossing a narrow, makeshift footbridge over a deep ravine, demonstrating how precarious the journey is and how inhospitable and dangerous is the landscape.

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