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 tradition.
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 tonalities.
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.