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

Rest on Flight into Egypt

c. 1599
Oil on copper, 37,5 x 24 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

The theme of the Rest on the Flight is primarily associated with the northern countries and first came into its own c. 1500 during the golden age of German painting. The paintings by Altdorfer and Lucas Cranach the Elder give the scene a magical, fairy-tale quality. The artist's conception of nature at that period was, of course, quite different from that of today. In the sixteenth century the forest was not seen as romantic, but rather as a place fraught with hidden dangers; a century later, when Elsheimer painted his Holy Family, nothing had changed. The angels and the figure of Joseph, even the treatment of light, were clearly inspired by Altdorfer's pictures, but the way in which the heavenly messengers descend to protect the travellers and light up the dark forest reveals the first traces of Baroque art.

In this piece, Elsheimer combined two legendary events: the Holy Family resting during the flight to Egypt and the tender reunion of the Christ child with the infant John upon their return. On the left are the lamb of God with the staff (attribute of the Baptist) and the banner wound around the tree, bearing the words 'Ecce [agnus dei]'. On the right is Joseph the carpenter with his axe. Even thought he has a rightful place in the scene, he has also been formally allocated the function of a 'repoussoir' figure, adding a further element to the establishment of depth in the composition. Angels with wreaths and singing praises fill the space of the painting.

Adam Elsheimer was born in 1578 in Frankfurt-on-Main. His first teacher, Philipp Uffenbach, owned a collection of old German drawings which had been left to him by Grünewald. Here we find a direct link between Elsheimer's youth and the art of the Dürer period. The painter left his home at a fairly early age and went to Venice, where he worked with the Munich painter Hans Rottenhammer. It is presumably to this period that the Berlin painting belongs. Its style betrays the influence of Tintoretto, while the composition is modelled on similar works by Rottenhammer. But, in comparing the two German artists, one is aware of the marked superiority of the disciple, who was not content to accept the formality and smoothness of the late Mannerist school and who tried to inject a new truth into traditional themes. Only when he settled in Rome c. 1500 did he find his own conception reflected in the trend towards realism that emanated from the art of Caravaggio. Here he met the young Rubens and became acquainted with the landscape art of the Flemish painters Paul and Matthäus Bril.

Elsheimer's art combined an awareness of nature, which was rooted in old German tradition, with an appreciation of the human body, which derived from monumental paintings of the Renaissance. In his own paintings, however, Elsheimer never abandoned the small format which alone enabled him to continue treating details with such loving care. Although the slow pace at which he worked was criticized by his contemporaries, this did not in any way lessen their admiration of his work. His art, his observation of nature, had an influence that was not confined to Italy but also extended northwards, where Rubens and Rembrandt were also subject to it.

The picture was acquired for the Berlin Gallery from a private collection in Nuremberg in 1928.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.