A Thousand Words
Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Flight into Egypt
by Mary Elizabeth Podles
The Flight into Egypt was probably Henry Ossawa Tanner's favorite Bible story. He painted at least four versions during his long career, usually depicting the Holy Family fleeing across open country. This version, his last, depicts an entirely different moment in the story. In this painting, the main characters are huddled against a wall, Mary and the Child on a donkey and Joseph behind them in the shadows. They are hemmed in; in front of them is a door, but it is shut and the window is barred. Behind them is an open arch showing just the suggestion of a dark landscape beyond.
In the foreground, the dominating figure is a robed and muffled man holding a lantern. It is hard to know how to read this figure. Is he a menacing presence? A watchman to be eluded as Joseph flees by night? Is this a moment of awful danger? The Holy Family could be frozen in fright. Or is he an angelic figure come to light their way? In Matthew's account, Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream, and takes the child and his mother away by night. The artist, late in life, favored a restricted palette of blues such as we see here (they came to be known as "Tanner blues"), and the only hint of warmth in the darkness comes from the golden light of the lantern and the browns in the light it casts. So perhaps this is a protective presence instead of a menace.
THIS ARTICLE ONLY AVAILABLE TO SUBSCRIBERS.
FOR QUICK ACCESS:
Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.
more on art from the online archives
calling all readers
"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand
"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor
• Not a subscriber or wish to renew your subscription? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of publishing!
Purchase Print &
Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!
Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!
GIVE Print &
Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for the reduced rate of $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!
Transactions will be processed on a secure server.
Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to touchstonemag.com—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.
OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)
Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.
more from the online archives