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Bill Thayer

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13". . . 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 . . ."

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

[image ALT: A stone carving of a woman seated side-saddle on a donkey, with a baby seated on her left knee; she holds a flower in her right hand and the baby touches it. Behind them, a bearded man on foot; about to be stepped on by the donkey, a curious small animal with wings and scales. It is the depiction by Maitani of the Holy Family's Flight into Egypt on the façade of the cathedral of Orvieto in Umbria (central Italy).]

Very few elements in Maitani's façade are merely decorative; if anything, he tends to simplify rather than to elaborate; so what is the curious animal on which Mary's steed is about to step?

The simplest and therefore most immediately tempting answer is that it is meant to be a generic reptile, and thus a geographical indication, a visual shorthand for the land the Holy Family crossed. The New Testament does not describe their route, but the gap can be filled in a bit: the geographer Strabo, for example, writing about a hundred years later, specifically states (XVI.2.30) that "many reptiles are to be seen" in the overland passage from Israel to Egypt; thus we have here either a sort of medieval gloss or explanation of the Bible — or, just possibly, a reference to some extra-Biblical tradition.

Another possibility, by no means exclusive, is a symbolic interpretation: it's a basilisk, a venomous beast of varying appearance: associated with Egypt, and also with the standard translation of Ps. 90(91):13, "Thou shalt tread upon the asp and the basilisk," long taken as prophetically referring to Christ's immunity from evil and His victory over it. Though basilisks properly seem to have been serpents, a strand of medieval thought gives them hybrid bird attributes and confuses them with cockatrices. For an introduction to the whole subject, see Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia epidemica, Book III, Chapter 7 (profusely annotated and with several other writers appended).

Another likelier possibility is that it's a garden variety dragon, also associated with Africa and the Virgin Mary; and even, according to the early‑17c bestiary writer Edward Topsell for example (for this dubious information I am indebted to James Eason of that same website), winged dragons came out of Arabia and invaded Egypt — the same route as that taken by the Holy Family. For comparison's sake, here is an engraving of one such dragon, looking small and pudgy like our Orvietan beast:

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Page updated: 20 May 12