We often read in history of the rejoicing throughout a kingdom over the birth of a prince: messengers are sent from place to place to proclaim the glad news, congratulations and gifts follow, every possible care is taken for the nurture and protection of the precious young life.

The story of the childhood of Jesus reads somewhat like that of a prince, in spite of his lowly surroundings. Though he was born in a manger, a herald angel announced the glad tidings of his coming. Though the people of Bethlehem took no note of the event, a multitude of the heavenly host sang "Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good-will to men." Wise men from the East made a long journey to find the young child. The lore of the stars had taught them that he was a king, and they brought gifts worthy of royalty, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

It was these visitors who were the innocent cause of the child's first danger. In seeking him out they had gone to King Herod at Jerusalem, asking, "Where is he that is born King of the Jews?" These inquiries made the monarch very uneasy. He had no mind to lose his crown. To prevent the appearance of any possible rival he determined upon summary measures. "He sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under." By this terrible massacre he thought to do away with the child Jesus.

But the Prince of Peace was protected by stronger guards than ever surrounded the cradle of an earthly prince. A warning message was sent to save the child from the impending danger. "The angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph 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."

"When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt."[1] The journey was long and wearisome, but the mother Mary was young, and strong in courage, and Joseph was a sturdy defender. As for the babe, what mattered it to him whether he slept in a manger, or under the trees by the wayside? He was safe in his mother's arms.

[1] St. Matthew, chapter ii., verses 13, 14.

What adventures befell them by the way we do not know, but we like to imagine the incidents of the journey. There is a tradition that angel play-fellows came from time to time to amuse the child Jesus. When Mary and Joseph were forced to pause a little while for food and rest, the lonely places were filled with these glad presences.

THE REST IN EGYPT Pitti Gallery, Florence
Pitti Gallery, Florence

This is the legend illustrated in our picture. Under the spreading branches of a great tree, Mary has found a comfortable seat on a grassy bank, and Joseph rests behind her. The little child stands on his mother's knee, clinging to her dress for support, while her arms hold him firm. A band of infant angels play on the flower-strewn grass in the open space in front. With joined hands they circle about as in the figure of a dance or game. The music for their sport is furnished by a heavenly choir, hovering in the upper air and singing the score from an open book.

The leader of the dance is evidently the beautiful angel who pauses opposite the Christ-child. Resting on the right foot he draws back the left, poising on his toe, in an attitude of exquisite grace. With his left hand he waves a salute to the infant Christ. His right hand clasps that of a companion angel to form an arch beneath which troop the whole jocund company. It is good sport, and the players scamper gleefully along. A single angel stops to gaze ardently towards the Christ-child.

The mother looks on at the game with queenly dignity. A smile hovers on her lips, as if the eagerness of the little leader pleased her. As for Joseph, his glance is directed towards the tree-tops. Perhaps his senses are not fine enough to discern the spirit company, but he is well content with the happiness of mother and child.

From the safe pedestal of his mother's knee the child Jesus watches every motion of the angels with breathless interest. The angel leader seems to beckon him to join them, and he is almost ready to go. Yet the firm hands hold him back, and he is glad to cling to his mother's dress. A circle of light about his head is the halo, or symbol of his divine origin.

The picture is an important record of our painter's travels in Italy. It was here he imbibed from the old Italian masters the tender and devotional spirit which animated their sacred works. Titian was the special object of his admiration, and he painted a number of Madonna pictures which show the influence the Venetian painter had upon his art. The circle of dancing angels recalls the cherub throng of Titian's Assumption.[2]

[2] See Chapter XII. in volume on Titian in the Riverside Art Series.