(b. 1578, Frankfurt/Main, d. 1610, Roma)

Flight into Egypt

Oil on copper, 31 x 41 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

This small painting is undoubtedly the most beautiful example of the night scenes that brought Elsheimer so much fame. Four sources of light illuminate the greenish-blue landscape with its starry sky: the full moon on the right above the trees fringing a lake, its reflection in the water, the campfire of the cowherds on the left, from which a column of sparks rises into the darkness of the tree tops, and finally the torch in the hand of Joseph, who is leading the ass with Mary and the child. Each of these sources of light models the objects in the immediate surroundings only fragmentarily, so that illuminated areas are directly juxtaposed with unlit areas. Our gaze is drawn across expanses of impenetrable darkness, settling upon islands of fine draughtsmanship, and following the vaulted silhouettes of the tree tops.

Here, night is portrayed as a miracle that can help the holy family on their flight to Egypt. Elsheimer has succeeded in evoking a sense of danger and comfort at the same time entirely by means of the atmospheric values of his use of light and shadow. It would therefore be wrong to place the emphasis entirely on the subject of landscape. This picture represents something entirely new in the field of religious imagery, with landscape opening up possibilities of exploring new narrative contents.

Both Rubens (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kassel) and Rembrandt (National Gallery, Dublin) made paintings of The Flight into Egypt inspired by Elsheimer's masterpiece. Although Elsheimer died young and his output was small he played a key role in the development of 17th-century landscape painting, and his influence is apparent in the work of many other 17th-century artists.