The earliest version of the Flight into Egypt story is the brief report in St Matthew’s gospel. There is, of course, no archaeological or documentary evidence that the journey took place at all, and scholars have suggested that the story was inserted by Matthew to bolster Jesus’s identity as the Jewish Messiah by linking his story to that of Moses. Verse 15 of Matthew refers to the book of Hosea, 11 v 1:

When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.

Which specifically refers to Moses.

  As with all incidents of Jesus’s childhood, people wanted to know more, and so later gospel writers developed the narrative, based on traditions now lost, or from their own imaginations. The most fertile imagination belonged to the writer of so-called Arabic Infancy Gospel, who in the fifth or sixth century created a lengthy tale full of incident and adventure that would work well in a present day superhero movie.  The Holy Family cured a range of demonically possessed people, including a three year old that ‘made speeches and utterances’ who was cured by putting Jesus’s clothes that Mary had just washed on his head, and from whom demons poured in the shape of ravens and serpents. They caused all of the idols in Egypt to fall down and smash. They scared off a band of robbers by conjuring up the sounds of chariots and drums, they enabled a dumb bride to speak, they cured lepers, and came to the aid of a newly married man ‘unable to enjoy his wife’. Jesus even managed to restore to human form a young man who had been turned into a mule by witchcraft. After this they met up with two more robbers who turned out to be - surprise! - the very same robbers that would be crucified alongside Jesus 30 years later – a pretty incorrigible pair of robbers then.

  It’s all pretty unconvincing stuff and has precious little in the way of a narrative structure. As a text it was almost certainly unknown to mainstream artists and had no influence on them – probably just as well - though some of the legends may have influenced early Coptic art, and others may have been known through folklore.

The key texts that had an influence on art were the Gospel of Matthew itself, the apocryphal  Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, and the account in the Golden Legend. The Pseudo-Gospel isn’t far behind in the exercise of imagination with its tales of dragons, lions and panthers. Unfortunately for artists, the much more readily available Golden Legend account wasn’t a great deal more informative than the gospel account:

Joseph was warned by an angel. He took the child and Mary his mother into Egypt, to the city of Hermopolis, where they stayed for seven years until the death of King Herod.  When the Lord came into Egypt all the idols in the land fell down, as had been foretold by Isaiah the prophet. Just as the firstborn of Egypt were died when the exodus of the children of Israel took place, so now there was no temple in which the idols remained whole.
  Cassiodorus tells us in his Tripartite History that in Hermopolis, in the Thiebaid, there is a tree called Persidis. If a fruit, or leaf, or piece of bark from this tree is applied to a sick person’s neck, they will be cured. This tree bent down to the ground and worshipped Christ  when the blessed Mary fled to Egypt.

 To make up for this, artists  included events that seem to have had no textual provenance at all, and must have been drawn from tradition and folklore. These include in particular  the story of the cornfield. 

    Apocryphal elements thrived in northern art, but became less of a feature in Italian art of the Renaissance.    Then came the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563) and the disapproval of any content in religious paintings not sanctioned by the Bible. A shame. 

Much more recently (around 1960),  Otto Meinardus, a German Coptic scholar, collected all the myths and legends about the story he could find and published them in a book called The Holy Family in Egypt. An abridged version of this text can be found here. Strangely, perhaps, for a scholar, he treats all the myths as nothing more or less than the historical truth; and yet, of course, that was just what all the other apocryphal writers had done. 


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