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A FASCINATING SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ‘THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT’ PAINTING

February 28, 2016

Flight into Egypt 17th century 2

The above painting is from the Coptic manuscript, The Four Gospels in Coptic and Arabic, dated to 1663 AD, and kept at the British Library, London (Or. 1316 f.5v). It shows The Flight into Egypt – the painting is titled in Arabic, ‘مريم ويوسف لما توجهوا الى أرض مصر’ (Mary and Joseph When They Departed to the Land of Egypt). It comes immediately after Matthew 2:15 “… that it may be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the Prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.”

It seems that the artist was the same as the scribe who wrote the Gospels in two columns, one Coptic and the corresponding translation in Arabic. Unfortunately I do not have the name of the scribe but I suspect it is included in the manuscript which one hope to review on day at the British Library.

The painting is fascinating. The background is not Egyptian but Palestinian. This is not surprising as it is clear from the title of the painting that the artist was concerned with the departure from the Holy Land to Egypt. Tradition has it that the Holy Family fled by night, after being warned by the angel of King Herods’ intention to kill all babies in village, west from Bethlehem to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast then east to Hebron, and then, west again, to Gaza, on the Mediterranean coast, to follow from there the northern Sinai coastal route into Egypt. It seems to me that the artist captured the Holy Family as it travelled through Ashkelon, which was a large Greco-Roman city at the time. Anyway, the architecture and nature displayed in the painting is not Egyptian: there are no Nile, papyri, palm trees.

The Holy Family, accompanied by Salome, the midwife, composed of the Virgin Mary riding on a donkey. While dangling her two legs from one side, as women traditionally ride monkeys in the Middle East, the Virgin holds Baby Jesus in her right arm while she holds the rein of the donkey with the left hand. Joseph walks behind the donkey, holding a raised up staff over his left shoulder by the left hand. Salome follows Joseph. All of them wear bright blue and red clothes.

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