A Great Painting of a Great Bible Story
The Flight Into Egypt painted about 1305 by Giotto (about 1270–1338)
The Bible tells us that, soon after the birth of Christ, St. Joseph dreamed he saw an Angel who said to him: “Take the young Child and His Mother and flee into Egypt.”
Joseph wrapped their few belongings into a bundle, hung it on a stick, and put it over his shoulder. He poured water into a jug and carried it in his hand. Then, helping Mary to mount a little donkey, they set off with Baby Jesus on their journey.
In this picture – one of the thirty-eight in the Arena Chapel – the Italian painter Giotto shows us the Holy Family as they follow a winding path among the mountains. St. Joseph heads the little group, but he is not really guiding them, for he looks back at the boy leading the donkey. The boy has his head raised as if listening to an inner voice.
We can see where the voice comes from. It is the voice of the Angel above. This Angel points the way with his hand while his face is turned toward the boy who leads the donkey. Three more boys follow. They seem to be discussing the strange happenings.
In the center of the picture we see the noble figure of Mary sitting straight on the donkey’s back. She looks ahead with a calm and earnest expression. Her hands fold around little Jesus who is tied to her by a cloth. In Italy, even now, children are often tied to their mothers in this way.
Mary’s cloak was originally painted blue, but today only specks of the color remain. We see the warm red of Mary’s dress beneath her cloak.
There is not much detail painted in her garments. The painter arranged the folds of her cloak to explain the way she sits: with one knee near the donkey’s neck. The shading of the folds gives a well-rounded modelling to her entire figure. We can all but feel the air that surrounds her and the other figures in this picture too.
This is not true, though, of the landscape. The mountains are unnaturally small compared to the figures, and so are the scanty trees. They don’t look natural at all. The mountain in the foreground is painted entirely in one light color. The one behind it is painted darker to show us that it is farther away. A small part of a third mountain, even more distant, is painted in an even darker color.
In nature the colors would melt together. But the painter did not care to show us what the landscape really looked like. He wanted to tell his story clearly, that was all. To tell us that the figure of Mary with the Baby Jesus is the most important in the picture, he painted the first mountain like a frame around her. The curving slope of the mountain surrounds the figure of the Angel in Heaven. This curve also connects Mary with the Angel who is there to guide her and her small Son so that they may arrive safely in Egypt.
Giotto was a Florentine artist. In Florence people were interested mainly in stories, and Florentine painters told the stories they painted plainly and clearly. When they painted landscapes, it was only to make their stories clearer. They modeled figures as strongly as if they were sculptured. Giotto was the greatest painter of democratic Florence in the Middle Ages.