The cover of the month

The Gaze between a Father and His Son by Pierre-Marie Dumont

Francesco Mancini († 1758), successor of Carlo Maratta († 1713), enjoyed his moment of glory in Rome at a time when the Baroque was expressing its swansong in the form of the Rococo style. Pope Clement XIV († 1774) purchased this Rest during the Flight into Egypt in 1772 to hang in the paintings gallery of the Vatican museums which he had just founded.

This charming work is inspired by a famous episode, “the miracle of the palm tree,” from the Book of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Childhood of the Savior, known also as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Drawing on tradition—including the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James dating back to the 2nd century—this ­apocryphal Gospel appeared in the 5th century, and was then ­reworked and enriched until the 12th century. It should be noted that the miracle of the palm tree is also mentioned in the Quran, Surah XIX, Mary, v. 23. Here then is the story according to the apocryphal Gospel: On the third day of the flight into Egypt, Mary was suffering from the scorching heat of the sun. Seeing a palm tree in the distance, she asked Joseph to take her there. As the Holy Family rested under the generous shade of this providential tree, Mary expressed the wish to eat of its fruit. Joseph replied that the high-hanging fruit was out of reach and, moreover, before gathering fruit, he must go in search of water, for their gourds had run dangerously dry. With that, the little child Jesus said to the palm tree, “Bow down and feed my mother with your fruit.” And the palm tree bowed down until Joseph was able to gather its fruit and offer it to Mary and Jesus. Then Jesus said to the tree, “Stand up again, and make the spring that bathes your roots rise up and flow forth.” And immediately, a spring of clear fresh water appeared.

To this basic story, later versions and the theological ­imagination of artists added other wondrous elements. For example, the palm tree didn’t simply offer dates, but fruit suitable to this earthly ­trinity that wished to eat of it. Thus, Gérard David painted a luscious bunch of grapes with clear Eucharistic symbolism. Here, as in the famous painting by Barocci on the same theme, it is cherries that Joseph has gathered in the wicker basket lying at Mary’s feet. For heart-shaped red cherries symbolize the Passion of Christ, his blood shed for many, and his pierced heart. Taking another artistic liberty with the apocryphal narrative, Saint Joseph is not depicted as an indifferent old man, but as an attractive young husband fully assuming his role as head of the family.

Let us then enter more deeply in contemplation of this work. In the background, we find an obelisk and a temple whose presence suggests that this episode takes place at the gates of Egypt. The characteristic trunk of the palm tree forms a diagonal around which the scene is constructed. While an archangel holds the crown of the immaculate conception above Mary’s head, two angel-musicians play a celestial hymn: this is clearly the Holy Family. In her hand, Mary holds a cup brimming with water from the miraculous spring. On her lap, the infant Jesus takes a cherry from his father’s hand. The unfathomable depth of the gaze he shares with his father attests to their mutual awareness of the symbolism of this gesture: it is no less than his Passion for the glory of God and the salvation of the world that Jesus grasps and will consummate. And there is the hand of Mary reaching out, as though to prevent her child from doing something foolish. But this isn’t a reflex of maternal instinct who wants to protect her child from all harm. It is the image of the consecration of the Mother of God who will accompany her child’s every act… right to the foot of the cross and the entombment.

The Rest during the Flight into Egypt, Francesco Mancini (1679–1758), Pinacoteca, Vatican, Italy. © 2021, Photo Scala, Florence.