Before the child Jesus was two years old, he was taken on a journey which at that time was long and tedious. An angel appeared to Joseph one night in a dream, saying, "Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word; for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him."

The news of Jesus' birth had been first brought to King Herod by the wise men of the East, who came in search of the new-born king whose star they had seen. The idea of a strange ruler to usurp the throne alarmed Herod, and he determined to be rid of any possible rival. Accordingly orders were given to slay all children in and near Bethlehem "from two years old and under."

While this terrible slaughter was going on, the Holy Family were making their way to the strange land of refuge. Here they lived, awaiting heavenly guidance for their return. "But when Herod was dead, behold an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel; for they are dead which sought the young child's life. And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel."[21]

[21] The quotations are from St. Matthew, chapter ii.

This is all the Evangelist tells us of what was doubtless an exciting, perhaps even a perilous adventure. We may suppose both journeys to have been made by donkeys, the common beasts of burden in Eastern countries. The young mother and child must certainly have had to ride. As for Joseph, he was a sturdy man, and may well have walked; in those days travelling was a matter of time. Unused to luxuries, these simple folk trusted in Providence to supply their few needs by the way.

Our picture illustrates an imaginary incident on the return journey from Egypt to Israel. It is the hour of the noonday rest, and the little company have come to a halt in the woods. An old legend relates how at such times the trees would bend to offer them fruit, and springs would gush forth out of the dry ground for their refreshment. Mary has seated herself on a bank by the stream, while Joseph plucks the fruit from the date palm near by.

The boy Jesus has been standing between the two, watching Joseph, from whose outstretched hand he now takes the fruit. At the same time he is thirsty, and leaning back towards his mother, he turns and throws an arm over her shoulder, asking for a drink of water. She has a round basin (or scodella) which the family use as a drinking-cup, and the child points to it with a coaxing smile, resting his hand on her wrist.

Parma Gallery

Mary turns with fond pride towards the dear little face so near her own. Her face is the same which we have already seen bending in a mother's first ecstasy over her babe. Here it has a maturer and more matronly look, but with no less sweetness. Joseph, from his higher level, looks down kindly upon the two. His generous nature seems to take delight in anything that gives them pleasure. He is large and heavily built, a stalwart protector should perils beset them. In spite of the thick draperies so clumsily wound about him, he is a dignified figure. He holds here a place of prominence seldom given him by other painters.

The child upon whom so much love is lavished is a tall, lithe boy with a well shaped head. His hair is parted, and falls in loose curls on each side of a forehead which marks him a child of genius. The face is delicate and sensitive, with a shy expression in the eyes.

The family are not alone, for, all unseen by them, a company of ministering angels wait upon them. A tall one in the rear takes care of the donkey. Another little creature peeps from the thicket beside Mary. Four more circle overhead among the branches of the trees, borne upon little clouds which they have brought with them from the upper regions. Their wind-blown hair and fluttering garments show how swift is their motion. One of them tugs mightily at the palm, throwing himself backward in the effort to bend it towards Joseph. Two others sport together with interlocked arms, and higher still, a pair of eyes gleam through the leaves. The whole jocund company seem to fill the place with mirth. They fulfil the promise of the ancient psalmist, "He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways."

Certain characteristics of Correggio's art are well illustrated in the picture. His delight in the foot is here almost equal to that he shows for the hand in "The Marriage of St. Catherine." The three wayfarers travel with bare feet, and the ministering angels flaunt their feet gaily in the air. Drawn in many positions, it is interesting to see how decorative this feature of the picture is.

The figures are cleverly grouped, that they may completely fill the tall, narrow panel. The composition is built on a diagonal plan. From the left hand of Joseph, grasping the palm branch, to the right hand of Mary, with the basin of water, runs the strong main line which gives character to the drawing. The child links the two larger figures together, by stretching out a hand to each. The group of cloud-borne angels above also follows a diagonal direction parallel to the larger group. We shall presently see that the painter used the same method of composition in another picture.

The opening beyond the copse, where the donkey is tied, makes the spot seem less gloomy and isolated. It is an important principle of art to represent no enclosed place without a glimpse of light in the background.