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The Flight into Egypt
Workshop of Goossen van der Weyden
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All seems calm in the foreground of this picture – Saint Joseph leads a placid (and delightfully hairy) donkey on which the Virgin Mary sits feeding the Christ Child. But look closer and the atmosphere changes. This is a family fleeing a massacre: the Massacre of the Innocents. When King Herod learnt of the birth of a future King of the Jews, he sent his men to kill all infant boys in and around Bethlehem.

In the distance bands of armed men are coming out of the gates of a city. The leading group has already reached a hamlet and started on their terrible task. A house is on fire; in the streets women scream in horror over small corpses or try to snatch their children away from the soldiers. This panel was possibly once part of a huge altarpiece, perhaps painted for export to Spain or Portugal, with a large central image surrounded by smaller scenes of the life of Christ.

Key facts
Artist Workshop of Goossen van der Weyden
Artist dates active 1492; died after 1538
Full title The Flight into Egypt
Series Two Panels from an Altarpiece
Date made about 1516
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 80.2 × 69.7 cm
Acquisition credit Bequeathed by Mrs Joseph H. Green, 1880
Inventory number NG1084
Location in Gallery Not on display
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Two Panels from an Altarpiece

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These paintings show episodes from the life of Christ: the visit of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth, and the Flight into Egypt. They are thought to be two of four surviving panels, possibly from of a huge altarpiece made for a patron in Spain or Portugal; this format was more popular there than in the Low Countries.

Goossen ran a large workshop, and several assistants evidently worked on these panels at various stages. At least two artists did the underdrawing (the preliminary outlining of a composition); one was responsible for the figures, the other for the landscape. There were certainly changes of plan: the final landscapes are completely different from those in the underdrawing.

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