The escape of the Holy Family from Israel into Egypt has long been a favourite subject in Christian art. The event was traditionally understood as one of the “seven sorrows” of the Virgin Mary, which explains why it became such a popular scene.
Pope Benedict XVI explained the story this way: “The evangelist Matthew narrates that shortly after the birth of Jesus, Joseph was forced to leave for Egypt by night, taking the child and his mother with him, in order to flee the persecution of King Herod (cf. Matthew 2:13-15)… In this misfortune experienced by the Family of Nazareth, obliged to take refuge in Egypt, we can catch a glimpse of the painful condition in which all migrants live, especially, refugees, exiles, evacuees, internally displaced persons, those who are persecuted.”
It’s not clear where exactly the Holy Family stayed, or how long they remained in Egypt. At the time, there was a thriving Jewish community in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, as well as in other towns across the Nile delta (cf 2 Maccabees 1:1-10; Acts 6:9). Perhaps this was where they took refuge. This region was hundreds of miles from Bethlehem, which would have involved a long and difficult journey for the three of them.
They may have lived in Egypt for several years, while they waited for the political situation to change back home. This means that Christ would have spent some of his earliest years living in Africa. St Matthew’s gospel says that at some point, an angel appeared to St Joseph and told him that it was now safe to return to Israel. The family then made their way back, setting up home in Nazareth (Matthew 2:19-23).
This 4×3 metre canvas of The Flight into Egypt was painted in 2015 by the Russian artist Timur D’Vatz. Found in the French church in London, Notre Dame de France, it was commissioned to celebrate 150 years of the Marist religious order. Since the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it pictures an episode in her life. As a scene of a migrant family, it also reflects the fact that the church runs a refugee centre.
This vast painting, which D’Vatz produced in Normandy, is rich in symbolic meaning. He took inspiration from Byzantine art, mythology and medieval tapestries. The stretched-out bodies of St Joseph and the Virgin symbolise their upward journey to God in heaven, while also remaining grounded on earth. St Joseph’s cloak unfolds protectively around his wife and child, who are riding a rather majestic donkey. His cloak also features pyramids, as a nod towards their journey into Egypt. The fish represent their crossing of the River Nile, as well as their life as Christians (fish being an ancient symbol for followers of Christ).
See the full image:
Where to find this work of art
Notre Dame de France, London
Read the relevant passage