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.
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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.
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