Although I saw this painting at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, it is actually on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Apparently Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) painted several canvases of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of the innocents born around Bethlehem. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew (2:16):
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
This painting appealed to me because it moves its subject into an obviously European setting—certainly as far removed from the Sinai Peninsula as it is possible to be. At the same time, the scene is as peaceful as a bucolic Poussin or Lorrain painting of the same period.
Cuyp was noted for his landscapes. According to the Wikipedia entry on him, “he is especially known for his large views of Dutch riverside scenes in a golden early morning or late afternoon light.”
Yesterday at the Getty Center, I spent most of my time in the Medieval and Renaissance galleries, reacquainting myself with old friends. One painting that fascinated me was “The Story of Joseph” (circa 1485), attributed to the Florentine Biagio d’Antonio, which in foreground and background gives several early episodes of the tale of Joseph from the Old Testament. By focusing on different parts of the image, one saw different scenes from the story.
The following is the description of the painting from the Getty Center website:
Drawn from the Old Testament, a series of continuous narratives depicts episodes from the life of Joseph, the favorite son of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob. To make the story easier to follow, Biagio d’Antonio included inscriptions identifying the principal characters.
In the left-hand loggia, Jacob, seated on a throne, sends Joseph to his half-brothers tending sheep in the field. In the far left corner, the brothers, jealous of their father’s love for Joseph, strip him of his jacket and throw him into a pit. Passing merchants purchase the young boy from his brothers for twenty pieces of silver. In the background to the right, the merchants board the ship that will take them and their cargo to Egypt. In the right-hand loggia, the brothers show a blood-smeared coat to their father as evidence that Joseph is dead. With his head in his hand, Jacob mourns his son, whom he believes to be dead.
It’s almost as if this were a precursor to the cinema by telling a detailed story in a single still image. One of the things I love most about Medieval and Renaissance painting are the picturesque landscape backgrounds, which lend an aura of fantasy.
Many people (Martine among them) don’t care for the repetitive Biblical themes of the art of the period. What interests me is the almost endless variety within a familiar, given subject matter.
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