BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008






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The Madonna of Loretto; RAPHAEL; oil on wood; Musée du Louvre, Paris








Mary, Jesus and Joseph are the Holy Family

The Infant Jesus is a baby or a very young child; he is borne by her mother and Joseph, his foster father, is most of the time slightly in the background. The Virgin Mary is always very young whereas Joseph is an old man, for a tradition holds that he is a widower and the father of other children.


This Holy Family is that of the Nativity but Mary and Joseph are no longer in adoration before the Christ Child. The scene becomes independent or, placed in another context, other figures are added…; which allows the spectator to differentiate between numerous holy families.







The Flight to Egypt; Simon BENING; 1525; tempera and gold on parchment; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Paul Getty trust


The flight to Egypt is very frequent. It is an independent representation but it is also a means to show the Holy Family. Mary is sitting on a donkey and holds the child in her arms while Joseph leads the beast. Sometimes the ox of the crib of Bethlehem follows them.

In the 17th century, the donkey was considered too familiar and the flight became a long walk; which implied a bigger child or a baby carried in an osier cot on Joseph’s back.

The return from Egypt, seven years later according to the legend, is much rarer.



A Rest during the Flight to Egypt; Orazio GENTILESCHI; 1628; oil on canvas; Musée du Louvre, Paris

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The Flight to Egypt; Jean COLOMBE; 1485; illuminated miniature from the “Très Riches heures du Duc de Berry”; Musée Condé, Chantilly, France

Christus Rex



The rest in Egypt.

During the flight to Egypt, the Holy Family is having a rest, which is the opportunity for a rather intimate scene; Joseph is asleep, Mary feeds Jesus at the breast or rocks him.

Sometimes, a palm tree leans by itself towards Mary who wanted its fruit and shadow. According to the legend, the palm has become, for this reason, the sign of the reward to martyrs.


Christ in the House of his Parents or the Carpenter’s Workshop; John MILLAIS, 1850; oil on canvas; Tate Collection, London.

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At Nazareth, the Christ Child quietly plays between Mary and Joseph. Realist painters like to represent an ordinary family; old Joseph works in his carpenter’s workshop, helped by Jesus while Mary, always young, is busy doing the housework.

The Holy Family can receive the visit of Elizabeth and her son John the Baptist.



The House at Nazareth; Francisco de ZURBARAN, 1630; oil on canvas; Museum of Art, Cleveland, USA

Web Gallery of Art

Details are not innocent; for example, the bread and the apple recall sin and redemption. 

Jesus, more or less old, plays or works but all the elements are symbolical. Here he rescues a bird caught in thorns making a crown; elsewhere one can find a bird whose stretched wings make a cross, a lamb that evokes the sacrifice, a bunch of blood-red grapes, an olive branch recalling the Garden of Olives…which are, as always, symbols of the Passion. Mary is thinking and suffering.

On another register, Jesus can also make miracles one after the other like flying the birds of clay he has moulded… The imagination of the Apocrypha is boundless.



The Virgin in Majesty; c. 1070; wood; Ebegnée Museum, Belgium







The Virgin with Child; Giovanni BATTISTA Salvi; oil on canvas, Musée Bonnat, Bayonne, France



The Holy Family can be reduced to the Virgin and Child.

Mary holds Jesus in her arms or on her lap. This representation is very frequent in medieval statuary and in Renaissance painting but its spirit is then different.

In Romanesque art, the Virgin in majesty represents God’s Mother; she is severe, sitting on a throne. She holds a child dressed as an adult and erect so that he can be worshipped. Some Virgins are black-faced without any known reason. In Baroque art, some statues are dressed in very precious materials and jewels varying with the moments of the year. They are carried in processions.


With the Virgin of Tenderness, the relations of intimacy between the mother and her child are put forward. The baby sucks his mother’s breast, the mother caresses him… Renaissance Italian painting creates a real model of Madonna and Child. They are surrounded with fruit or birds whose symbolical values are sometimes difficult to interpret: the apple evokes sin, bread and grapes recall the Eucharist and the bird is an image of salvation. Other elements evoke the virginity of Mary: the enclosed garden, rose-bushes, the fountain, the olive tree, lilies, the door, the mirror…they come from the litanies of the Virgin, which have been, in their turn, drawn from the Song of Solomon.



The Holy Family; Giulio ROMANO attributed to RAPHAEL; 1518; oil on wood; Musée du Louvre, Paris



The Holy Family extended to John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth.

Mary and Elizabeth had visited each other when they were pregnant (See the Visitation), they are again together with their children. When there is a man, he is necessarily Joseph, for Zachary, John’s father, has been killed by Herod.

According to a mystic vision by Saint Bonaventura, a 13th century Franciscan friar, John and Jesus played together after the return from Egypt. John is slightly older than Jesus; they play with a very fine cross and a lamb which are the symbols of the Passion. But they are not equal; John is leaning towards Jesus who blesses him. The children can be represented alone, without their parents.



The Virgin and the Child with St Anne; Albrecht DÜRER; 1519; oil on wood, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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The grandmother, the mother and the grandson. Mary has a mother, Anne, and as she is young the three generations are put together.

This Holy Kinship is a completely apocryphal creation but it has developed with the cult of Mary.



The Family of the Virgin; Marten de VOS; 1593; painting on wood; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes, France



The Holy Kinship can be extended.

Since the Gospels mention the two Mary’s whose sons are among the apostles, the legends have made them the half-sisters of Jesus’ mother. According to this legend, Anne is said to have had three husbands and three daughters and of her six grand-children five are said to have become apostles. A few painters then place side by side Mary, her two half-sisters who bear the name of their respective fathers: Mary [the daughter of] Cleophas, Alphee’s wife, and Mary [the daughter of ] Salome, Zebedee’s wife. The former is the mother of James the Minor, Jude and Simon, the latter is the mother of James the major and John the evangelist. This large family can also be extended to the cousin Elizabeth and to John the Baptist… all the children seem to be the same age.


This extended kinship is unknown in Italy and becomes rare with the Catholic Reformation.






The Madonna of Loretto; RAPHAEL; oil on wood; Musée du Louvre, Paris





The Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 2

After the birth of Jesus, some magi came to worship the child.

After their departure, the angel of the Lord appeared in a vision to Joseph and said to him : "Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be there until I bring you 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: And was there until the death of Herod.

King Herod had the children Jesus’ age killed; it was the massacre of the Innocents.

But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel: for they are dead those who sought the young child's life." (Matthew 2:13-20)

The Gospel according to Luke, chapter 2 

 And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.
And the child grew, and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.
(Luke 2:39-40)



There are few narratives about the childhood of Christ in the gospels.

According to Matthew, Jesus is a new Moses, his life is threatened by a bad king and he sojourns in Egypt.

According to Luke, Jesus is a new David who, born in Bethlehem, goes back to Nazareth.

The apocryphal gospels are much more imaginative and serve as sources of inspiration to artists.








The Madonna of Loretto; RAPHAEL; oil on wood; Musée du Louvre, Paris



The Holy Family at table of course refers to the Last Supper.

Carracci’s representation is original for Christ turns towards Joseph who is thus given some importance. The representation of Joseph and Jesus alone was rather frequent in the 17th century. As for Mary, she turns away from the child as if she saw the future.



The Holy Family at Table; Jan MOSTAERT; 1500; wood; Wallraf Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany

Biblical art



The Virgin with the Cherries; Annibale CARRACCI; c. 1600; oil on canvas; Musée du Louvre, Paris



The flight to Egypt is very often represented in Romanesque art; in Classical art, angels are added.  

The Flight to Egypt; Romanesque capital, St Andoche abbey church, Saulieu, France



The Flight into Egypt; Bartolomé CARDUCHO; Oil on canvas; The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg



Scenes of life at Nazareth:

Jesus helps his father, the carpenter.

Jesus in his parents’ vineyard.

The spectators, boy-angels in Honthorst, become little girls in Denis.



The Childhood of Christ; Gerrit van HONTHORST; 1620; oil on canvas; The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Web Gallery of Art



The Childhood of Christ; Gerrit van HONTHORST; 1620; oil on canvas; The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

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The three generations: Jesus, his mother Mary, his grand-mother Anne form the Holy Kinship, and even a true Trinity in the Master of Francfort’s panel. Leonardo da Vinci transforms the scene by humanizing it and adding the grand-cousin, John the Baptist.



Madonna and Child with St Anne and the young St John the Baptist; Leonardo da VINCI; 1507-08; charcoal with white chalk heightening on paper, National Gallery, London

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St Anne and the Virgin with Child; Master of Francfort; 1511; oil on panel; National Gallery of Art, Washington

National Gallery Washington


Virgins and Child.

In Gerard David, the Virgin and Child are placed in a precise context, that of the rest during the flight to Egypt.

In Raphael, the context disappears, the picture becomes a sort of icon, hence its success throughout the centuries and civilisations.



The Rest on the Flight to Egypt; Gerard DAVID; 1513-23; oil on panel; Museo del Prado, Madrid

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The Madonna of the grand Duke; RAPHAEL; 1504; oil on wood, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Web Gallery of Art

Two deviations of the Virgin and Child,

towards allegory in Cranach,

towards the portrait in Fouquet who represents Agnès Sorel, King Charles VII’s mistress, as Mary.


Charity; Lucas CRANACH the elder or the younger; after 1536 oil on wood; Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art, Luxembourg

Musée National d'Histoire et d'Art



Virgin and Child; Jean FOUQUET; c. 1452-1455; panel of the Melun diptych; Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp.

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BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008