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The Flight to Egypt

Resting on the Flight to Egypt.

Joachim Patenier (1475-1524). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie – Berlin. Around 1520.

The Flight to Egypt

Auguste Donnay (1862-1921). Le Musée de l’Art Wallon – Liège.

The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: « Get up, take the child and his mother with you and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him ». So Joseph got up and left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead G38 .

Not only in Florence did painters work together. Also in Flanders, the artists joined sometimes their skills to collaboration. One painter excelled in landscapes and the other in figures so they collaborated when a really perfect picture had to be delivered. Joachim Patenier was an excellent landscape painter, but he did less well in figures. He appealed sometimes to other painters to work on these. He worked together with Quinten Massys and Joos van Cleve, and maybe also with Adriaan YsenbrantG9. Since the flight into Egypt brought Joseph and Mary through wild and exotic land, this theme suited Patenier as no other to demonstrate his skills in landscapes. He made several panels of this scene, among which one is in the Museum of Berlin; another one is in the Prado of Madrid and still another one in the Museum of Antwerp. We will follow the painting of Berlin.

Patenier was born around 1475 near the city of Dinant, maybe in the village of Bouvignes, in Wallony, Belgium. Bouvignes lies on the Meuse River. This river has cut through the rocks around Dinant, so that dramatic landscapes show here. The valley is narrow, some hundred meters wide, and the sides of the valley are steep rock formations with high promontories and citadels. The valley and the hills above are very green, filled with forests. The result is very romantic, and when the fogs of the river rise also very mystical. The river Meuse is rich in legends; people were much impressed with the wild majesty of its nature. It is no wonder that Patenier took these images of his youth with him to the rich Flemish and Brabant towns where he could earn a living as a painter. Until his time most paintings were portraits or scenes of the life of Christ with figures. Landscapes were added in the background to fill the frames. After all, paintings were artificial images. It did not enter the mind of the early painters to render nature as it was, nature for nature’s sake, since this was so in contradiction with the essence of a picture.

Patenier showed that commissioners could like a bit of landscape. He was one of the first painters to make of landscape painting his foremost style. And who knows: maybe Patenier was homesick and longed for the nature of his youth. Another painter of his home village continued his style. This painter may also have had the name of Patenier but he was called Henry Blès in his native French, or Herry met de Bles in the town Antwerp where he worked principally. He was called ‘Civetta’ in Italian for he travelled to Italy and worked there in various towns. ‘Civetta’ means ‘owl’ for he pictured an owl as a kind of signature in many of his works. This artist brought the northern art of landscape painting to Italy, to Padua and Ferrara.

In the ‘Rest of the Flight to Egypt’, the landscape indeed has all the ingredients to please, to arouse curiosity and admiration. The view is from above so that the whole land unfolds before our eyes. A river meanders to a seaport. Patenier worked from 1515 on in Antwerp, until his death in 1524. This painting dates from 1520, from the short Antwerp period of Patenier, so a reference to the port was always welcome. To the right lies the village of Betlehem from which Joseph and Mary have escaped. Soldiers are running around in search for Jesus. They can also be seen running in a cornfield where reapers are working. According to a medieval legend, Joseph and Mary passed by a farmer sowing seeds of corn. The Virgin asked the farmer to tell Herod’s soldiers that they had passed by at the time of sowing. The corn miraculously grew and ripened overnight so that when Herod’s soldiers came the next day they thought Mary and Joseph had fled a long time ago and they abandoned their quarry. This story is also shown in the Prado picture, more clearly and closer to the foreground than in the Berlin version. Patenier used the same story in various pictures.

In the middle of the painting, Patenier painted a steep rock formation such as he had seen near his hometown. Inside is the round temple of Sotinen. This refers to a story told in the apocryphal gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew. When the Holy family passed this heathen temple near Hermopolis, the statues of the pagan gods fell to the ground and were broken. The falling statue is a theme that can also be found in the Madrid and even Antwerp versions of the ‘Flight to Egypt’ by Patenier. The Antwerp version features a variant theme of the ‘Flight to Egypt’, which was very popular too: Joseph is shown on the travel with Mary riding on a donkey.

According to the ‘Golden Legend’, Joseph took Mary to Egypt, to the city of Hermopolis, where they stayed for seven years until the death of Herod of Ascalon. All the idols in Egypt were destroyed. In Hermopolis also there was a tree called persidis that cured all kinds of illnesses when leaves or branches were applied to the neck of the sick persons. This tree bent down to Mary and thus adored Jesus. Although the picture of Joachim Patenier shows Mary on the road to Egypt, he has pictured her sitting under a tree.

To the left then is the peaceful village into which Joseph and Mary found refuge. Patenier has added bridges, roads leading into the mountains and travellers on their way. Lush green bushes and trees form the foreground. Then follows a band in the picture covered by the villages and meadows to right and left, in symmetry. The bluish mountains and the seaport form the upper band. Above all is the sky, where also the horizontal elongated clouds add to the impression of wideness of the landscape.

The Virgin and Child figures are not by the hand of Patenier. He probably asked Joos van Cleve, another Antwerp painter, or one of the artists of van Cleve’s workshop to draw these figures. Van Cleve himself borrowed many scenes from other painters and the scene from the ‘Rest on the Flight to Egypt’ also comes from another artist, here from Robert Campin. It is a copy of the ‘Madonna near the Hearth’, a picture that is now in the Hermitage of Saint Petersburg D1 . Mary’s belongings are in a woven basket, which may be an image borrowed from Gheeraert David. Patenier has added the bags wound around Joseph’s staff. The painter has completed the picture with other symbols. Birds are approaching and a deer is nearby. These also refer to a legend according to which the animals followed Jesus on the travel, recognising the Lord in him. Various flowers refer to Mary such as the traditional irises. Legend also mentions a source of water coming out of the earth so that Mary and Joseph could drink and Patenier has painted the source close by to the left. These elements are to be found likewise in the Prado version.

Patenier has blended various style elements. He uses a religious theme and many symbols, which show his erudition. The symbols allowed the artist to bring a story with many aspects of narration in a picture where nevertheless the landscape is the major feature. The short representation of symbols was very handy to Patenier’s aim and real interest: to represent landscapes of nature and yet to give content to the picture. Moreover, especially in the Late Middle Ages, symbols were widely used, and well known by viewers.

The tradition of landscape painting by artists of the river Meuse in Wallony lasted in history. Painters remained proud and conscious of their heritage. Auguste Donnay is one of those wonderful less well-known masters of Wallony that deserve to be rediscovered. He was a marvellous landscape painter, neither fully of the Impressionist movement nor of the Realist or Symbolist schools. He painted Walloon landscapes in soft pastel non-contrasting colours, yet with well-delineated volumes. He was an intimate artist in whose landscapes one feels strangely at ease, protected and hidden. He made a ‘Flight into Egypt’ where Joseph and Mary are again the theme used to show a Walloon landscape in autumn. A typical Walloon village is shown as well as the soft hills of the Meuse valley.

The pictures of the ‘Rest on the Flight to Egypt’ were the ideal occasion for painters to show their skills at imaginary landscapes that Mary and Joseph might have encountered on their road to Egypt. From Joachim Patenier and Henry Blès on, a tradition evolved. These pictures of nature were an exception in an art that was otherwise mainly centred on the human figure. Landscape paintings would become an art in their own right and reached their zenith in the French Impressionists.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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