Rest on Flight to Egypt, 1596-1597
Oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 65 1/2 inches (133.5 x 166.5 cm)
Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome
The story of the Holy Family's flight was one of the most popular apocryphal legends which survived the prohibitive decrees of the Council of Trent and often appeared in painting from the end of the sixteenth century. Caravaggio's idyllic painting - Rest on Flight to Egypt is an individualistic representation of this.
Caravaggio ingeniously uses the figure of an angel playing the violin with his back to the viewer to divide the composition into two parts. On the right, before an autumnal river-front scene, we can see the sleeping Mary with a dozing infant in her left; on the left, a seated Joseph holding the musical score for the angel. The natural surroundings reminds the viewer of the Giorgionesque landscapes of the Cinquecento masters of Northern Italian painting, and it is fully imbued with a degree of nostalgia. Contrasting the unlikelihood of the event is the realistic effect of depiction, the accuracy of details, the trees, the leaves and stones, whereby the total impression becomes astonishingly authentic. The statue-like figure of the angel, with a white robe draped around him, is like a charmingly shaped musical motif, and it provides the basic tone for the composition. It is an interesting contradiction - and at the same time a good example for the adaptability of forms - that this figure of pure classical beauty is a direct descendant of Annibale Carracci's Luxuria from the painting "The Choice of Heracles".
It has not been clearly decided what was the textual source for the music-playing angel in the story of the flight into Egypt. Charming is Caravaggio's decision to actively involve St Joseph in the "Rest on Flight to Egypt" for the music-making.