The “Rest during the Flight into
Egypt” is one of the masterpieces of the young Caravaggio.
The composition is divided by the figure of the angel seen from
behind, intent on playing the violin, a rather innovative iconographic
element, which has only the odd precedent in Italian figurative
On the left, S. Giuseppe, portrayed very realistically, old and
weary, holds the score; his head is next to that of the donkey.
Note, in the far left corner, the flask stoppered with a rag and
with part of the cording unstuck, a notable trace of the painter’s
vocation towards still life, that is to say the vivid and effective
portrayal of inanimate objects.
To the right of the angel, surrounded by lush vegetation, there
is the Madonna, asleep with the Child in her arms. Both are depicted
in an idealized manner and the beauty of their features contrasts
with naturalistic rendering of S. Giuseppe.
The “Rest during the Flight into Egypt” is the first
picture with a biblical story and of large size painted by the young
Caravaggio. Having arrived in Rome at the beginning of the 1590s,
Caravaggio had in fact started with pictures of small size and of
profane and allegorical themes. His subjects were isolated figures
or half-length figures, such as the “Bacchino Malato”
and the “Boy with the basket of fruit” in the Galleria
Borghese, or the “Concert” in New York and the “Cardsharpers”
in Fort Worth.
The “Rest” is datable to about 1595, and the Lombard
formation and the Venetian heritage of the painter are still evident
in the treatment of the landscape in the background and in the luminous
One of Caravaggio’s characteristics, according to contemporary
biographers, was to paint “with the example of nature before
him”, that is to say with models.
Modern critics have found confirmation of this evidence in the
recurrent presence of some of the figures in the paintings of these
years. It seems that the painter used the same model for the Madonna
as the one who posed for the “Magdalen” in the Doria
Gallery; in the delicate profile of the angel, we can recognize
the same young man who lent his features to the ingenuous gambler
swindled by the cardsharpers in the canvas in Fort Worth.
The notes in the score are not picked out in a casual way, but
follow a real musical piece. As has been demonstrated recently,
it is a motet written by the Flemish composer, Noel Bauldwijn. The
text, from the Song of Songs and dedicated to the Madonna, begins
“Quam pulchra es”, “How beautiful you are”.
The theme of the music transports us to the refined world of Caravaggio’s
clientèle, in which concerts and evening entertainments were
appreciated and frequent.