Elsheimer’s directness of vision placed him, along with Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci, in the vanguard of reforming artists working in Rome in the first decade of the seventeenth century. A pioneer in the development of naturalistic landscape, his influence extended to Claude and Rembrandt. Here he portrays the Holy Family taking an arduous path through rocky terrain. Devotional literature interpreted their dangerous journey to Egypt as a pilgrimage of life toward salvation, necessary to redeem humankind. This message is reinforced in the details of Elsheimer’s miniature panel. The broad-brimmed hats that ward off the searing sun are the traditional attributes of pilgrims. The carpenter’s tools, water gourd, and cup, and the rustic harness and saddle, show the humility and poverty of the family. Singled out by a divine light, the mighty oak suggests the Tree of Life––from whose wood the cross of Christ was made––which bestowed immortality on earthly sinners.
Elsheimer left his native Frankfurt for Venice at the age of twenty. In 1600 he arrived in Rome, where he remained until his premature death ten years later. A member of the Academy of Saint Luke, he was part of a circle of northerners in Rome that also included Rubens.
According to contemporary accounts, Elsheimer worked slowly and thoughtfully, producing a relatively small number of finished works. He died in poverty, although his works were coveted; according to his contemporary Giulio Mancini, they were “in the hands of princes and those persons who, in order that they should not be taken from them, keep them hidden.” No more than thirty finished paintings on copper, all diminutive in size, have survived.