KERA guest commentator Patricia Mora is a writer living in Dallas, who has studied in the U.S. and abroad. During her career, she’s written about art and architecture in a variety of media. She earned a Master’s degree in Humanities and is currently studying Comparative Religion under Harvard professor Diana Eck.
No matter how often you visit area museums and galleries, it’s possible to walk past a masterpiece without ever really considering them. Today, we’ll begin an occasional series of commentaries on overlooked works in local permanent collections — with a painting at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.
The painting, The Flight into Egypt by German artist, Adam Eisheimer measures slightly less than 4 by 3 inches. But this remarkable oil-on-copper painting from the sixteenth century is surprisingly huge in importance. As the name suggests, it depicts a familiar story in the western canon — the holy family fleeing to escape the wrath of Herod.
Mary is depicted riding a donkey, holding the Christ child, and Joseph walks beside her. They travel with only the most elemental of household goods and each of them is engaged in private reverie. There isn’t conversation or interaction. This is a barren, stripped-down journey that is uniquely solitary. And the painting’s miniature size belies the powerful entry it offers into the human psyche and our shared symbols.
It’s startling what will unfold if you give this piece time to work on you. Like all truly fine art, it will do the work if you simply let it. Let go of preconceptions and practice what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Simply engage in that most fascinating of human enterprises: watching.
The Flight into Egypt suggests a number of things. First, the path is not only solitary. It’s rocky and steep. In other words, the protection of the holy — in this case, Christ — is a uniquely individual endeavor that’s difficult. And unspeakably beautiful. The sky is radiantly blue; the trees are deeply rendered in bluish tones and the city, the community, lies far behind. This is a reminder that the precise means of preserving the holy is something we must do in measured silence, step-by-step, moment-by-moment. Yet it’s our essential task because our encounter with the mysterium isn’t optional. It’s something in which we’re constantly engaged — in our own way and via our own history.
The painting urges us to see the nature of the holy. Like the work itself, it’s also tiny. What’s more vulnerable than a child? Its very being is tenuous. This isn’t Zeus, the powerful ancient god. No, this is a smaller embodiment of the divine. One could even observe, it is the small, to-be-guarded gorgeousness that resides in all things. And isn’t it important that the depicted Exile is the result of rage? After all, Herod demanded the killing of all male children. So the very embodiment of the intersection of the human and the divine is sent to another place, another locale. It can’t reside alongside wrath.
Also, while The Flight into Egypt depicts in marvelous detail a specific story in the Western tradition, it could just as easily be cast in an Eastern motif because it’s so archetypal, so shared. We all engage in flights launched by a need to retain what we deem holy in our own lives. Take this luminous instance of plodding and searching and make it your own. What holiness must you guard and how might you best continue your own pilgrimage?
A short drive to the Kimbell isn’t much effort in exchange for a renewed insight into life and a way to fashion your own means of “holding” the holy — and guarding it.
After all, that’s all any of us really have.