Within a sprawling rural landscape, the Virgin Mary is seated with the Christ Child in front of a classical building. She holds her sleeping son tenderly while three figures – an unidentified female saint and Saint George with the princess he rescued – gaze at him in awe. The infant Saint John the Baptist and two angels stand with a lamb, which symbolises Christ’s eventual sacrifice. Saint Joseph appears to the right of the scene in the middle distance, slumped against a tree, seemingly asleep.
This painting was produced after 1635 by a member of Rubens’s studio in Antwerp and is based on The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Prado, Madrid), which Rubens made between 1632 and 1635. Some of the details in the National Gallery picture differ from the earlier painting but the composition, including the positioning of the figures, remains relatively unchanged.
The Virgin Mary cradles the infant Christ, who is asleep in her arms, while three figures on the left gaze at them in awe and wonder. We don‘t know the identity of the female saint just behind the Virgin, but the man is Saint George. He stands with the princess he rescued from a dragon, which is shown cowering at his feet.
Close by, two angels play with a lamb, which symbolises Christ’s eventual sacrifice. The infant Saint John the Baptist holds a finger to his lips, shushing them so that they don’t wake the sleeping child. Saint Joseph appears in the background, slumped against the trunk of a tree, seemingly also asleep. The grazing donkey at the right edge of the painting suggests that we are seeing the holy family while they rest on their flight into Egypt. They had been forced to leave Bethlehem to protect Christ from King Herod, who believed his throne was under threat from the ‘King of the Jews’.
The figures are positioned in front of a classical building with large, monumental columns that support an arch. The surrounding rural landscape is lit in part by the setting sun, although there is a strong contrast between the bright streaks of sunlight in the sky and the shadowy cluster of trees to the right. The central figures are illuminated by a source of light coming from the left – it draws our attention towards them, particularly the three women and the infant Christ. The painting of landscapes became a significant part of Rubens’s late work: they came to feature prominently in his figure scenes, and he took much pleasure from depicting landscapes in their own right.
Rubens ran a large workshop of artists and apprentices in the bustling artistic hub of Antwerp, and this painting was produced after 1635 by a member of his studio. It is based on The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Prado, Madrid), which was made by Rubens himself between 1632 and 1635. It very closely follows the original in composition and style, but the unnamed artist did make some subtle changes. The princess is depicted with darker hair, a rounder nose and a less prominent forehead than the figure in Rubens’s original, which is thought to be based on Hélène Fourment, the artist’s wife. The background in the National Gallery picture is more sketchy and less detailed than that of the Prado work, and the artist also decided not to depict the arbour and climbing rose that Rubens has in his picture. This has the effect of softening the background details, drawing more attention to the figures in the foreground, and to the kind, thoughtful expression on the Virgin’s face as she gazes towards us.
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