THE CHRISTMAS CANVAS: ‘The Rest on the Flight to Egypt’ by Luc Olivier Merson (1879)

THE CHRISTMAS CANVAS: ‘The Rest on the Flight to Egypt’ by Luc Olivier Merson (1879)

The first Christmas was far from comfort and tedium. Twelve days had not yet passed and adversity struck. Post the visit of the Magi the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him about the impeding peril. ‘So Joseph got up taking the Child and his Mother with him left that night for Egypt.’ (Matthew 2:14). Fleeing with fear, they barely escaped Herod’s hounding army and a maniac plot of mass murder. 

Journeying, wandering, hoping, praying, they came a long way into the vastness of the open desert. As the wind whistled through the air, the coldness of the deep winter caught up with the pilgrim family. The little donkey shuddered as he plodded onwards with his precious load. Weariness soon weighed them down. They decided to stop and rest for the night.

As darkness poured over the desert, stars drilled down the sky. The wayfarers came across a solitary sphinx and decided to camp by its side. The air was clear. Yet the lonely travellers saw nothing, heard nothing. But something throbbed, something gleamed. It was the stark horizon that beamed for joy on having the Holy Family in its midst that holy night.

The sphinx shared in its cheer. It graciously obliged to serve as a chaise lounge to the Virgin Mary and the Christ child. As the Madonna and child fell asleep within its rest, the Sphinx raised its head blissfully glorifying God. For that night it lost not itself in the shadows of the constant solitary darkness. Christ Child was the source of divine light. 

Drained and exhausted, the faithful Saint Joseph slept on the soft pillowed sand perhaps anticipating the guidance of the angel in his sacred sleep. His pilgrim staff of faith lulled beside him. The little donkey grazed on the meagre vegetation. He had spent a long time in the wintery winds. Strong willed, the donkey was determined to not give up till Egypt was in sight.

The beauty of this Christmas canvas is the play of light. While on the left the thin ribbon of smoke drowsily drools to douse, on the right a luminous glow fills the air. It reflects onto the surface of the mythical creature. Thus the light testifies of the everlasting providence and love of the Almighty.

The Sphinx is a legendary being that springs from ancient Greek mythology. It consists of the head of a human and the body of a lion. It is therefore reminiscent of Christ as the lion of Judah. This radiates a message to the weeping mothers of the brutal massacre: ‘Do not weep! See the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David has triumphed’ (Revelation 5:5).

The theme of the Flight to Egypt has commonly been recorded in Christian art. However through his painting Merson transports us to travel with the Holy Family itself. As a successful French artist Olivier Merson had never travelled to North Africa. Yet he succeeds to create an illusion of an eye witness and breathes life into the desert through his painting. This then was attainable thanks to the records of the excursions of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign from 1798 to 1801. 

The ‘Rest on the flight to Egypt’ is a reminder of the homelessness of the Messiah soon after his birth. Thus God made man lived his early years as an immigrant, a displaced person in an unknown land with unknown people. It recalls the terrible reality of contemporary human migration. The painting serves as a ray of hope and advocates a shared response ‘to welcome, protect, promote and integrate’ the many forced and displaced refugees who live far from homeland and are separated from their loved ones.

In the words of Pope Francis: ‘Hospitality offered to the weary traveller is offered to Jesus Christ Himself’

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon, Mumbai
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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