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Bill Thayer

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Joseph Guides His Family Back to Israel

19But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20Saying, 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. 21And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.

Gospel according to Matthew, ch. 2 (King James Version)

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The Christian church has never quite known what to do with Joseph: as the human father of Jesus, who can compete with God? and with the emergence of Mary as the great mother of Christianity, yet another dose of competition. Here too, then, an ambiguous portrayal of Joseph: although Scripture is clear that he led his family out of Egypt (and reason as well suggests this must have been the case), here he is shown in the supporting rôle now so familiar to us.

The small people witnessing the scene from the corner, by the way, are almost certainly donors; there are many little figures of this type throughout the chapel. Here we may have a woman and her two sons (close-up).

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Yet the Flight to Egypt, and the Return from Egypt, are Joseph's moment. Mary watches Jesus, but Joseph, carrying the robe and headdress he wore to cross the desert, watches his wife.

The date palm localizes the scene, but in view of the intelligence of the iconography in the Cappellone, it may also be meant to prefigure the Resurrection in the mind of the viewer: I like to think so. Just as Christ descended into the bonds of death for three days, to arise again like the phoenix, so too as a child He retreated westwards to the land of slavery, to return again to Israel. Both the phoenix, a common medieval symbol of Christ, and the date-palm (in Latin, and to this day in modern botanical nomenclature, also phoenix) were associated by ancient authors with Egypt: Pliny even reports (H. N. X.3‑5) that in his time a phoenix-bird was brought from that country to Rome.

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Page updated: 16 Aug 03