Here, Nicolas Poussin depicts a famous passage from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, when King Herod, having heard from the Magi of the birth of the “King of the Jews” in Bethlehem, ordered the death of all children under the age of two in the city. An angel warned Joseph in a dream that he must flee to Egypt with the child and his mother to escape the massacre.
The artist based his composition around a diagonal separation of the sacred (heavenly) space on the left from the profane (earthly) space on the right. In the middle, the Holy Family travels through a Roman landscape, guided by an angel. Each glance denotes a direction or particular dialogue: Joseph questions the angel, Mary looks behind her, symbolizing nostalgia for the past, the donkey plods onward in the shadow towards an uncertain future, while Jesus, in the center of the composition, challenges the viewer. The diagonals in the picture converge in the Virgin’s protective gesture, emphasizing that the flight into Egypt was one of the Seven Sorrows that Mary endured, and foretelling the passion of Christ.
Having settled in Rome in 1642, Poussin drew inspiration from ancient remains, works of the Renaissance, and the contemporary classical models of Annibale Carracci. The face of the Virgin, looking behind her, is probably derived from a Roman bas-relief; the expression of the angel and the pose of the recumbent traveler were inspired by Raphael’s frescoes and engravings; and the portico in the background and the bent tree are drawn from an ancient mosaic.
The work was commissioned from the artist in 1657 by a silk manufacturer from Lyon, Jacques Sérisier, who had settled in Paris. Aged 63, Poussin was then one of Europe’s greatest painters and the founder of French classicism. Here, the artist-philosopher offers one of his most enigmatic pictures, in which the viewer can clearly see his universal, timeless reflections on exile.