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Key facts
Full title The Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Artist Orazio Gentileschi
Artist dates 1563 - 1639
Date made about 1620
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 175.6 × 218 cm
Acquisition credit On loan from Birmingham Museums Trust on behalf of Birmingham City Council
Inventory number L1311
Location Room 32
Art route(s) B
Image copyright On loan from Birmingham Museums Trust on behalf of Birmingham City Council
Collection Main Collection
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Orazio Gentileschi

The Holy Family enjoys a peaceful moment of rest on its journey into Egypt. The Virgin reclines on the hard, stony ground, steadying herself as she nurses the infant Christ, who is nestled in her lap. Joseph slumbers nearby, his head thrown back as a bulging sack supports his sprawling weight. The stepped shape of the crumbling brick-and-plaster wall echoes the pose of the Virgin and, behind it, a donkey waits patiently, its charming furry head anchoring the composition at centre.

Gentileschi’s design is rigorously simple, with few extraneous details. Though he has constructed the scene carefully, his technique owes much to real-life observation. It was commonplace for Gentileschi to get models to pose for him, and the man who plays Joseph here reappears in a painting of Lot and his Daughters (1622; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Most striking, perhaps, is Gentileschi’s exceptional skill in depicting different surface textures. The donkey’s head is rendered with astonishing realism, and he delights in painting the selection of richly coloured fabrics in the foreground, breaking up the earthy red and yellow ochre of Joseph’s garments, and the lavender and ultramarine of the Virgin’s, with different shades of white and grey. The smooth surface of the plasterwork on the wall, with its chips and cracks, contrasts with these swathes of crumpled drapery.

The touching domesticity of this scene is indebted to Caravaggio’s painting of the same subject (Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Rome). Both artists were in Rome at the turn of the 17th century and were acquainted with one another. It is not known precisely when or for whom Gentileschi’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt was painted, but the composition exists in at least four autograph variants, pointing to its popularity. This version probably served as the prototype for all others but is unique in its inclusion of the donkey and the nude Christ Child.

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