Something caught my eye and holds it still…

Standing outside having coffee on this autumn afternoon I am reminded of the passage of time.  Looking south from here, across the valley of Pistoia and over the hills, I see a landscape that Gentile Da Fabriano could have used for his painting ‘Rest during the flight into Egypt’, the small panel beneath his much more elaborate and ground-breaking altar piece ‘Adoration of the Magi.’  Some art historians consider this small piece, the second of three, to be the first example of a painted landscape.  The rolling hills contain cast shadows, much like those my eyes trace here on the distant foothills of the Apennines.  There are strips of clouds, adding depth to not only Da Fabriano’s pigmented tempera but my own 21st century view.  Far away from Mary and Joseph, a small city sits on a hill, the gravely road winding its way towards their safe haven from Herod’s swords.  I can see a city from where I stand: Pistoia’s duomo and campanile rise up from the more modern town.  Olive groves and fruit trees are illuminated in this clear, crisp sunlight, the wind blowing their leaves, and I imagine the circumstances must have been cold and fraught with peril for the small family, colder still for the elderly Joseph leading them and the small baby held in the arms of a young mother.   The two servants walk behind them, perhaps gathering fruit from the apple trees at the bottom of the hill.  The landscape opens up on each side.  Such perspective and such drama for such a tiny piece of wood and paint.

This piece fills me with such love for humanity.  Every time I see it I am struck by the depth of the color and the size of the panel.  At only 32 x110 cm Da Fabriano has told an entire story.  It portrays such a human condition and the cast of players seem so common: an old man, his young wife, their baby, two assistants and a donkey.  Would we have paid any attention had it not been the Son of God?



‘Rest during the flight into Egypt’, Gentile Da Fabriano

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