The Flight into Egypt is one of the most important works of German painter Adam Elsheimer. This painting shows the Holy Family traveling to Egypt during the night to escape the mutilation of male newborns ordered by Herod. It is popular for its realistic illustration of the constellations, and its unique lighting effects. The painting was done in 1609 during the Baroque period, and was considered as one of Elsheimer’s last creations before he died a year later. The medium used was oil on canvas, which was not common during the time. The painting was small, having a dimension of 31 x 42 centimeters.
Paintings of this size were called cabinet painting, which became popular during the Flemish Baroque period. The painting may be brought about by some important factors that have influenced the artist. These influences to be defined and discussed are as follows: 1. Background of the Adam Elsheimer 2. Influence of other artists 3. Characteristics of Elsheimer’s previous works 4. Style during the period of creation 5. Influence of Church and religion 6. Science and interest in astronomy Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610) was born in Frankfurt, Germany during the Late Renaissance period. He came from a poor family.
His father was a master-tailor and he had nine siblings. While he was growing up, he developed an interest in art. He studied the basic techniques of German Renaissance art and adapted the early Mannerism style of painting. His first major artistic influence was Gillis van Coninxloo, a local painter known for his landscape paintings. Also, Philipp Uffenbach, a German painter, served as his teacher in Frankfurt. When he was 20 years old, he moved to Italy. He went from Munich, to Venice where he worked for another artist, Johann Rottenhammer, who specialized in cabinet paintings. He influenced Elsheimer to produce small paintings.
He then finally settled in Rome to witness the unfolding of the Baroque era in 1600. Elsheimer joined a group of artists together with future supporter Peter Paul Rubens and Paul Brill. The subject of their artworks was Classical Italian. He then developed fascination with light and shadow effects due to the works of popular Italian artist, Caravaggio. 2 “Caravaggio used light to create shadows which edit out superfluity and make figures more legible. Elsheimer, in his most remarkable pictures, makes different kinds of light – daylight, firelight, lamplight, moonlight – elements in their own right.
Elsheimer’s paintings usually consist of a large landscape covered with plants that serves as an overshadowing setting for the main figures in the painting, which are often small. He painted figures and landscapes with less emphasis on artfulness, and more capturing the real essence of nature. “His early Mannerist style gave way to a more direct manner in which he showed great sensitivity to effects of light. ” His signature nocturnal scenes showcase his originality and poetic nature. This often creates a sense of mystery in his works.
These characteristics are very evident in The Flight into Egypt. First, the painting contained the Holy Family at the center, with a mass of dark shadowy trees as their background. The skies covered almost half the painting, and the figures are small in proportion to the canvas. Unlike other paintings of the same theme, Elsheimer chose the night setting to depict the mystery, uncertainty, and the fear of the Holy Family. The whole setting was dark, except for the starry skies and the four different sources of light. The only color that is not shadowy is the color red in Joseph’s shirt.
The moonlight is the most evident source of light in the picture. It slightly lights up the sky, and produces another light source by reflection in the waters. The third light source is the bonfire that lights up at the left side of the painting, which reveals two herdsmen, a cow, and other smaller animals. And last, Joseph carried a lamp or a torch that lights the Family’s journey. It shows his wife, Mary, carrying the baby Jesus Christ. Elsheimer played with the different light sources masterfully, making only the figures very near the light source distinguishable.
Everything else is covered in shadows. Elsheimer’s The Flight into Egypt is influenced by three previous artworks: Brueghel’s Harbor with Christ Preaching in 1595, Tintoretto, Flight into Egypt in 1587, and Carracci, Flight into Egypt in 1604. 4 Although Elsheimer was exposed to the Manneristic style of painting during his early years as an artist, he seem to have lost this influence when he went to Italy and turned into a Naturalist during the Baroque period. Nonetheless, he remained faithful to the Mannerist aesthetic. This is obvious in the amount of detail done in the painting.
The Milky Way, which is the beam of light in the sky, when inspected closely, will reveal hundreds of individual stars that he meticulously drafted. The contradictory relationship between the size of the work and of the shown image is also noticeable in this painting. 2 “Baroque art is characterized by great drama, rich deep color, and intense light and dark shadows. ” Paintings in this period usually portray the most dramatic, or action packed scenes in an event, letting the passion and emotions travel from the characters o the viewers. 1 In The Flight into Egypt, Joseph is seen to lead his family into the water to escape to Egypt.
The drama created by the darkness makes the viewers fear and a sense danger ahead of their journey. Yet, the lighting effects add comfort for the painting. Elsheimer’s works are mostly religious or mythological, which is generally the theme during the Baroque period. The Council of Trent demanded that paintings and sculpture should e produced for the purpose of glorifying the Church, and informing the illiterate of Catholicism. They used arts as a medium to disseminate their religious beliefs. Because of this, majority of the painting s produced during that time focused on Saints, the Virgin Mary, and other popular Bible stories.
Adam Elsheimer worked for Pope Paul V, who paid him to paint pictures of Biblical stories and saints. The subject of the Flight into Egypt is described in the gospel Matthew 2:13-15 of the Holy Bible. The picture shows Joseph leading his family to escape to Egypt after Herod ordered the death of every boy under the age of two. “The story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt was one of the most popular apocryphal legends which survived the unreasonable decrees of the Council of Trent and often appeared in painting from the end of the sixteenth century. ”
Elsheimer reportedly converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism a year before he painted The Flight into Egypt. Beauty, glory, humanity, and mystery most of all, are the main characteristics of Christianity. In the same year when he did the painting, he had a son with his wife of 3 years. Unfortunately, his son was not included in the census, allegedly because they gave him up to a wet nurse due to poverty. 1 This event might have inspired him to paint about the Holy family trying to save their Child. This might also be the reason why he made the painting too dark and enveloped with shadows.
A year after the painting was accomplished, Elsheimer reportedly died of melancholy. He died, poor and in debt. This suggests that Elsheimer was poor his whole life, and did not experience wellness even after his masterful works in his paintings. Also, when he was alive, he was observed to have a “very withdrawn and of an introspective disposition”. His perfectionism caused him to be unsatisfied with his works, and eventually, lose his self confidence. 3 This might explain his preference for the nocturnal settings and the darkness surrounding one of his last paintings.
The darkness, somewhat, gives the painting a gloomy atmosphere. The shadows on the other hand my have been used to mask his imperfections, The unique feature of The Flight into Egypt is its realistic and accurate illustration of the constellations. The painting was finished in 1609. Later on the same year, Galileo Galilee discovered the telescope. It is evident that there was a special interest in space and constellations during this period. In 1603, Adam Elsheimer joined Accademia dei Lincei. This small scholarly group took special interest and attention to natural science, including astrology.
He became friends with many artists, humanists, and scientists as well. This probably influenced his idea of the constellations, although his illustration of the skies in the painting looks like it was based solely on what he observes in the skies at night. The Flight into Egypt is an exceptional artistic record of the rising revolution in astronomy during the period. 4 Elsheimer’s work was unique in both its style and its iconography. “He seems to have been particularly imaginative, creating new versions of both common and unusual subjects”. In The Flight into Egypt, he was able to successfully fuse Mannerism and Naturalism.
He kept the painting look as realistic as possible, while incorporating elaborate details, especially characterized in the constellations. This great concern for details is a distinct characteristic of Mannerism style. Generally, Elsheimer’s work was unique and influential for three reasons. One, his nocturnal scenes were very original. His lighting effects in general were very clever and delicate. Although he got this fascination through studying the works of Caravaggio, he maintained a certain difference between their light and shadow effects.
He uses experiments with different sources of light and their different effects, including the moon, lamps, candle light, campfire, and others. In the flight to Egypt, he used four light sources He often use as many as five different sources of light, radiating gently to expose the main features or figures of his painting, and to create mystery and drama. Second, his talent in painting landscapes enables him to use the landscapes as an effective background for the figures in the story. The landscape is important because it dictates the setting of the story depicted in the picture.
His landscape settings are often covered with plants, grass, or trees. In The Flight into Egypt, the background of a sequence of trees wrapped in shadows makes the setting look mysterious and dangerous. Although the landscapes play an important role in his paintings, he does not always emphasize their physical features and he keeps them realistic. Lastly is his ability to fuse and integrate different artistic styles into one creation. The theme of The Flight into Egypt is definitely Baroque and is greatly influenced by the church and Christianism.
His shift to Naturalism did not totally erase great influence of Mannerism in his works. He was a perfectionist when it comes to the details of his works. Also, his painting often modestly features an event, not putting highlight into actions and emotions, which is the Late Renaissance style. His works also exhibits realism from the Flemish Baroque period. In this work specifically, the dimensions were fit for cabinet paintings during the Flemish Baroque period. Elsheimer’s The Flight into Egypt is popular for one main thing: his realistic work on the night sky, and how it clearly illustrates the constellations.
The major influences for this work is Realism and his knowledge and interest in natural sciences. Although there are several other paintings depicting, and even entitled, The Flight into Egypt, Elsheimer’s work is definitely one of a kind. Its night time setting, lighting and shadow effect, and the exquisite and accurate representation of the constellations were definitely innovative. His works will eventually inspire great painters like Rubens and Rembrandt, and Lorrain in the future.
Courtney from Study Moose