Case Study: The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Caravaggio

  This picture is one of the highlights of the Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome, though for me the greatest painting there is Velasquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X. This is wisely hung in a room by itself,  lest the sitter's venomous and unsettling stare should discomfort the rather more agreeable characters in the other paintings. 

Gallery Doria Pamphilj, Rome

  Many have commented on the almost obsessive detail in this picture. It is a painting full of significance and hidden secrets;  I know there's a great deal more to it than I can grasp. All I can say is that I'm working on it. 

The scene shows a beautiful and (from Joseph's viewpoint) naked angel playing a violin, with Joseph holding up a musical score for him to follow. Mary and the Christ Child are asleep.

The figure of the angel divides the painting into two very different halves. Joseph's half is bleak and stony - nothing grows there. Look at the ground beneath Joseph's bare feet - walking there would not be a comfortable experience. He rests one foot on another to gain some small relief. 
  The right hand side is a complete contrast. Unusually for Caravaggio, we see a landscape, with the sky above. The ground here produces a range of flowers, and even the oak tree has  a fungus growing on it.. The angel provides the transition between the paradisiacal world represented by the Virgin, and the harsh reality of the real world represented by the aged and weary Joseph.

The angel's nudity has been discussed at length. A contemporary cardinal, Frederico Borromeo,  declared that angelic nudity 'is a sign of their immunity from any contamination by human misery'. Possibly, though angels weren't usually portrayed thus. When they grew out of putti-hood they  became respectable by and large,  and put their trousers on.  It also has to be said that Caravaggio wasn't averse to a bit of  homoeroticism. 
The music the angel is playing has been identified, and this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the painting. 
It is a setting of the Song of Solomon, a  motet in C major by the Flemish composer Noel Baulduin, published in 1519, Quam pulchra es et quam decora ( How fair and how pleasant art thou). 
Given that it's not clear how even an angel could play a motet on the violin, it is nevertheless worth reading a little more of the text, starting at Chapter 7 verse  6:

How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!
This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.
I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof:
Now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine,
And the smell of thy nose like apples.

In this context it has been used as a means to extol the beauty of the Virgin, but there also seems to be a subtle reference to the legend of Joseph picking fruit from the palm tree. 

Scholars have scrutinised this picture with almost as much obsession as Caravaggio painted it, and some of the scholarship seems a little misplaced. Someone has even identified the species of fungus growing on the tree, (It's called
Trametes versicolor if you really want to know) and there is much debate about which other paintings the models here pop up in.  What is really interesting here is the possible concealed reference to a myth disapproved of by the  Council of Trent just thirty years before. 

   Can  this be down to Caravaggio? Probably not. The painting was almost certainly commissioned by a cardinal, someone with a particular theological viewpoint, and he would have told Caravaggio precisely what to paint, Council of Trent or no. What the cardinal couldn't do, of course, was tell him how to paint it.

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