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Johann Conrad Seekatz

The Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt ca. 1765

Oil on wood

Alarmed by Joseph’s second dream prophesying Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, the Holy Family flees to Egypt.1 While the Gospels According to Matthew (2, 13–23) and Luke (2, 39) expend no more than a few words on this episode, it is described in detail in the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Thus we can pinpoint the exact moment on the Flight into Egypt that is depicted here by Johann Conrad Seekatz. On the third day of the journey, the Holy Family decides to rest under a palm tree, which at Christ’s behest bends its branches so that Mary may eat of its fruit and opens a vein of water from its roots so that she may drink.2 At dawn the next day, Christ thanks the palm tree as follows: “This privilege I give thee, oh palm tree, that one of thy branches be carried away by my angels, and planted in the paradise of my Father.”3
Even if the angel at left is clearly holding a palm frond, the tree on the right that Seekatz selected as shelter for the Holy Family is one he might have found in his native Germany. Looking more closely at the ground between the donkey and Joseph, we can see the little trickle of water, which at Christ’s command the tree dispenses so that the Holy Family can quench their thirst.4 The tear in the clouds, flanked by the divine apparitions of the angels, can be read as a reference to paradise and to heaven, here bathing the figures in divine light in an otherwise dark and dangerous landscape.

  1. Matthew 2, 13.

  2. Compare with Johann Conrad Seekatz, Rest on the Flight, ca. 1758, oil on canvas, 28.3 x 21.4 cm in the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, inv. no. GK 905.

  3. Roberts, Alexander et al. (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, New York 1886, Chap. 20, n.p.

  4. Ibid. Chap. 20, 2.

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