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:
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.