Thursday, December 9, 2010

Arrival of the Holy Family in Bethlehem

Title: Arrival of the Holy Family in Bethlehem
Artist: Cornelis Massys
Medium: Oil on oak
Size: 27 x 38 cm
Date: 1543
Location: Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Luke 2:1-5: In those days, Caesar Augustus made a law. It required that a list be made of everyone in the whole Roman world. It was the first time a list was made of the people while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be listed. So Joseph went also. He went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea. That is where Bethlehem, the town of David, was. Joseph went there because he belonged to the family line of David. He went there with Mary to be listed. Mary was engaged to him. She was expecting a baby.

A journey to the ancestral home would have fit Jewish practice, so that the custom was done in a culturally inoffensive manner. This was important, since an Imperial tax would have been a painful reminder of Israel's position before Rome. That Bethlehem is the town of David links Jesus’ birth with the promise of Micah 5:1-2, from Bethlehem will come “one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” The association of David with the birth sounds a regal note, even if the allusion is made subtlety.

Though not of the Palestinian landscape, this painting is striking for its faithful attention to rustic detail from the homeland of the painter. Shown after having been turned away from the inn, the Holy Family's presence seems almost incidental to such a loving delineation of landscape. Their identity is secured, however, by the celestial light piercing the clouds in the upper left of the image, a luminous line pointing to Mary and Joseph as they try in vain to secure lodging.

Cornelis Massys (1510 - ca. 1556) was a Flemish painter, draughtsman and engraver, and son of Quentin Massys, the first important painter of the Antwerp school. Like his elder brother Jan Massys, Cornelis was admitted to the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp in 1532, before reaching the age of majority. It is unlikely that he ever worked with his father or brother. Cornelis emerged as a fine painter of imaginary landscapes in the manner of Joachim Patenier, but his figures are generally less successful.

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