The Rest on the Flight into Egypt: A Motif in Scandanavian Folk Art

Article excerpt

The Legend-Motif

Abstract

Although there is no biblical account of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," the story is well known in the Christian world. In pseudo-Matthew the story has developed into legend form. He tells about the Christ-Child commanding the date palm Mary is resting beneath to bend down so that she can eat the fruit. It is found in literary sources from the twelfth century onwards. "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt" had become an independent pictorial theme by the fourteenth century and it was mainly by means of pictures that it became part of our cultural heritage. This paper traces the introduction of the motif into Scandinavia and its pictorial dissemination through various media, including printing, chestprints and wall-hangings.

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The Flight into Egypt is well known to most people in the Christian world. Indeed, there is a relic in the historical museum of the University of Lund which is said to be a piece of the tree under which the Holy Family rested on their famous journey. [1] But there is no biblical account of the Rest. In the Gospel according to St Matthew, the story about the Flight is sparse and bare:

   After they had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a
   dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and
   escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod
   intends to search for the child and do away with him." So Joseph got
   up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night
   for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead (Matthew 2:13-15).

The story of the rest is found in pseudo-Matthew where it has developed into legend form. One of the best known episodes from the story in pseudo-Matthew is of the Christ-Child commanding the date palm Mary is resting beneath to bend down so that she can eat the fruit. This can later be found in Jacobus Voragine's thirteenth-century compilation The Golden Legend, and in an early Swedish legendarium of Nicodemus. It also spread later through the so-called "Jesus Childhood Book" from the fifth to the twelfth centuries. This was translated into Swedish from Danish, the first Swedish edition appearing in 1776, and many more editions of it appeared during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Danish folklorist Eske Matthiesen has edited a modern translation of the "Jesus Childhood-Book," in which the story of "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt" is retold as follows:

   When they had been travelling about a day, Mary saw a date-palm,
   full of ripe fruit. She looked longingly at the dates as she had
   such a desire for them. But Joseph was so old he did not dare to
   climb up the tree, and the boy they brought with them to look after
   the animals, did not dare either. But the Christ-Child understood
   the desire of his mother, and being God, he made the palm bend down,
   so St Mary could pick as many dates as she wanted. When they all had
   eaten and filled their bags, the palm straightened up again, and
   waved its branches. They rested under the date-palm during the
   night, because there was so much grass that the animals had more
   than they needed to eat (Mathiesen 1989, 28).

The detail of the Christ-Child causing the date-palm to bend is poignantly rendered in Selma Lagerlef's (1904) Kristuslegender. Here, the Christ-Child pats the tree with his little hand and says:

   Palm bend! Palm bend! And it bent its long stem before the child, as
   people bow before princes. It inclined to earth in a huge curve, and
   finally bent so deep that the big crown with the quivering leaves
   swept the sand of the desert.

   The child did not seem to be frightened or astonished, but with a
   cry of joy he came and took bunch after bunch from the crown of the
   old palm-tree.

   When the child had taken enough and the tree still bent low on the
   ground, the child stepped forward again, patted it and said with the
   most beautiful voice:

   Palm go up! …