Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Holy Family in the Garden of Eden

Titian’s Flight into Egypt, on loan from the Hermitage to the National Gallery, is a very beguiling picture.  The Holy Family walk gravely across the canvas, Joseph in the rear, Mary and Jesus asleep on the donkey,  which is led by a boy who must be a wingless angel, carrying their belongings.  Behind and before them is an Arcadian landscape of woodland with distant mountains and a field populated by a group of small, lazing shepherds, a clutch of sheep, a bull and in the foreground a deer, crow and fox.
At first sight it looks as if the Holy Family have mistaken their destination and are heading not for  Egypt but Paradise – the pastoral section of the scene being an invocation of the Garden of Eden before the explusion.  Or maybe the subject was changed mid-way, with the Holy Family inexplicably taking the place of sorrowing Adam and Eve. Or is the contrast carefully planned for a purpose no longer apparent? 

A companion picture hanging alongside, the assassination of St Peter Martyr by Giovanni Bellini  shows a comparable scene – two friars being knifed by thuggish soldiers in tin hats, in front of oblivious albeit symbolic  woodcutters felling trees while peasants tend sheep and cattle. But this disjunction is not so very puzzling.
Whether intentional or inept, Titian's improbable juxtaposition and naïve composition are to modern eyes very appealing, evoking the surprise that would have greeted the naturalism in early Renaissance painting, from viewers accustomed (as we are too) to over-conventional renderings of sacred scenes.  Proportions and placings may be awry, but one's imagination responds. Perhaps the holiness of the Family makes  everywhere they tread Elysian.

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