Updated: May 7, 2021
It is my favorite Caravaggio, a family taking a rest in an oddly somber but verdant landscape where they are being serenaded by an angel. Divine! Well, it is the Holy Family. Of course they are running for their lives in order to escape King Herod's fury, as his troops go about massacring the innocents. Rest on the Flight to Egypt it is called, and this is not a layover at a Red Sea resort. Nothing in this landscape looks like the deserts of ancient Israel or Egypt. This is an Italian setting, somewhere in Lombardy perhaps, and not unlike some of Giorgione's landscapes in the early 1500s. The family seems settled on the banks of a little lake (see the water in the distance on the right) under the shelter of trees, with various plants all around them. They are weary, and Mary's slumped head and limp right hand would indicate that she and the baby are both napping. Joseph, being much older, bears the weariness of his age as well as his travels. They are not shabbily dressed, but they are humble people sitting on the bare earth.
Well, so much for the obvious; now for the oddities. Mary and the Christ Child have no halos. This was done during the beginning of the Baroque period; all holy figures had halos.
As well, look at the size of the donkey. He's an enormous beast; donkeys are small animals. Was it done so in order to get that magnificent head into a close frame with Joseph and the Angel, a portrait of three existences: man, beast, and a divine entity? And, of course, the most outstanding character here is in fact the angel playing the music. His placement in front of the family, all sitting in a row with the donkey in the background, puts the angel in a dominant position. He is extremely pale, with little of the flesh colors of the humans in the picture, which indicates his other-worldliness. The angel is rather scantily clad, with the front of his body only covered at the waist and below the knee, as his white garb flows elegantly around his limbs. He stands with the right foot slightly elevated, throwing his weight (angels have weight?) onto his left side causing the left hip to curve slightly outward. His face is intent upon his violin and the sheet music. Yes, sheet music, held by Joseph no less, indicating that Joseph indeed sees this angel. What is going on here?
Well I had to go digging through my art history notes looking for some answers. I kept looking at that donkey, and finally it came to me. It seems a reference to the classical images of the birth of Jesus, in which the shepherds are present and along with them a cow and a donkey. Here, because of their travel, the faithful donkey, probably taken from the stable in all those nativity scenes, is still with them. Of course, his calm intent regard seems to show he is soothed by the music. Ah yes, the music. In the picture here, we see Giorgione's (maybe Titian's) Concert Champetre in which two musicians sit thoroughly engaged in music and conversation while naked women loll about. Well, not exactly. The females are muses who are inspiring the musicians from the unseen, hence why these guys are oblivious to their presence. We can also see here the way a gown of some sort has draped itself around one of the muses. Caravaggio's angel has a touch of this, though in a more elegant style, just hinting at the angel's nudity. The main thing for me, though, is that Joseph is holding the sheet music. Is this the way that Caravaggio substitutes for not having halos? If Joseph's family is specially blessed, why would they not be able to see an angel and hold his divine composition?
Now, though Caravaggio painted this ethereally innocent angel, he, Caravaggio, lived a life far from the divine. He was a master of chiaroscuro, or the use of contrast of light and dark. His life seems to have followed the same course. When we look at his representation of the young men with whom he obviously "partied," as he represents himself as The Young Sick Bacchus, we see quite a difference between them and the angel.
These young men are all quite sensual, though in different ways. His young Bacchus character, the young man bitten by a lizard, and the young man with a basket of fruit are all done with a keen eye for human character and imperfection. Their coloring, of course, is that of flesh and blood. Their mouths are open, which heightens the sensuality. A sexual tone is quite evident as they handle ripe fruits, symbolic of their own youth and beauty. The angel's mouth is closed, and he shows none of the flush of humanity. His eyes look down at his violin and the sheet music. His body has the allure of a purely beautiful form. He has come to earth in a perfect body, unashamed to be naked, as his sash covers little. He is divine innocence in all its beauty, untouched and untouchable.
The angel's contrast with the seated figures, holy humans in this story, sets him apart from them but is not done using the strong contrast in dark and light that Caravaggio was so famous for. The toning down of the sharp contrasts allows for the scene to have a far gentler feel than many of his paintings of high drama. The style used here provides for a peaceful interlude during an otherwise harrowing trip, and the viewer can appreciate Caravaggio's appropriate choice of subtlety to match the theme of the painting.
Caravaggio was many things, an enfant terrible, a murderer, and a hard-living capricious man, who was also a great painter. A painter as full of darkness and light as the chiaroscuro techniques he used, his brutal life perhaps only adds to the beauty of his paintings. What he knew of the divine; whether he believed in it or not; whether he mocked religion or prayed fervently, we truly don't know. However, they say all painters paint themselves. He certainly did that when he painted his own self portrait as the head of Goliath after decapitation by David. I wonder what part of him was that divinely beautiful musical angel for whom Joseph holds the sheet music?
For more on Caravaggio's life, here is a link to Simon Schama's Power of Art segment on Caravaggio https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiH_ootDtTs
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© Marjorie Vernelle 2019