The rest on the flight into Egypt: a motif in Scandanavian Folk Art

The rest on the flight into Egypt: a motif in Scandanavian Folk Art

Nils-Arvid Bringeus

The Legend-Motif


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.


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


escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod


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! Palm, go up!

And the tall tree rose peacefully and respectfully with its vigorous

stem and meanwhile the leaves played like harps (Lagerlef 1904, 18).

It is mostly through pictures, though, that the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” has become part of our cultural heritage (Vogler 1930). One may find a few examples of the miracle from Pseudo-Matthew in medieval wall-paintings (Haastrup 1985, chap. 31), [2] and a painting dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century, in Budolfi church in Aalborg, Denmark, clearly shows the tree bending down so that Mary can reach the fruit (Broby-Johansen 1947, 84). The motif also appeared in graphic reproductions and thus enabled the miracle to reach a wider audience. Martin Schongauer, for example, a copperplate engraver, used the motif of the bending date-palm in an image of 1471-2, and the palm was also depicted by an anonymous master in 1522 (Wustefeld 1990, 27). However, it was not until the Counter-Reformation that motifs relating to the “Flight into Egypt” became common.

In particular, chest-prints, hand-coloured woodcuts meant to be used for decorating the inside of clothes-chests, brought the story and the iconography of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” to a wide audience. In the remainder of this article, I will discuss the history of this form of folk art.

Chest-Prints: Texts and Images of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt”

The common feature of all the chest-prints I shall be discussing is a representation of the Holy Family grouped together under a date-palm, the Christ-Child being nursed by Mary and Joseph sitting beside them. A print produced by Johan Rudolph Thiele (1736-1815), of whom more later, is typical (see Figure 1).


Mary and Joseph are sitting on the ground in the shadow of a palm-tree and a broad-leaved tree. Mary is dressed in a full-length gown; she has sandals on her feet, a veil on her head, and she gives the Christ-Child her breast. Joseph, with tightly-closed eyes and with his head resting on his left hand, sits quietly close by. Behind the trees a donkey is grazing. In a cloud over the trees an angel is extending its hands to protect the Holy Family, and another angel joins hands in a pious gesture. In the background to the left a town can be seen.

Extant chest-prints with this motif show the Holy Family painted in red, yellow and blue, while the tree and the landscape are green. The colouring is carefully done and is an effective instrument for increasing the attraction of the prints for a public which was not as spoiled by coloured pictures as we are today.

The symbolism of the representations combines the Maria lactans motif, which emphasises both mother-love and the humanity of Christ, and classical Utopias such as that of Virgil, where the Golden Age is heralded by the birth of a child. Here, the classical idea of a rest under a tree (the locos amoenis) was realised by the Holy Family. Thus, the “Flight into Egypt” with its distress and poverty, loses its terror and is given a peaceful signature tune.

The fruit image refers back to Paradise but through changed signs. While Eve in the Old Testament brought disaster through the forbidden fruit, St Mary, the new Eve, brings salvation to the world in the shape of the Christ-Child (Erlemann 1993, 43 ft.). [3]

The image is usually accompanied by a verse or prose text. However, only one of those, by N. E. Lundstr6m (see later), has a title dealing with the Rest. [4] It seems that the printers did not know the story from the “Jesus Childhood Book,” or at least did not take their inspiration from it, but only looked to the account in the Gospel of St Matthew.

The texts which accompanied the images indicate that the prints were made for both educated and uneducated people. On the one hand a print by Johan Sadeler (see Figure 3 later) has a text in Latin:


Expleat Herodes Christi ne caede furori

En homini cedit eu Genitrice Deus.

Servas o Mater nostram fugiendo salutem

Ut redeat nobis te redunte salus.

[Because Herod shall not satisfy his fury through killing Christ

See, God goes aside together with his mother.

May you, o Mother, protect our salvation through the flight

So that salvation may come back to us when you return.]

On the other hand, as in the print by Thiele (Figure 1), the texts may be in the vernacular:

Jesu, Mariee und Josephs Rejse nach Egypten

Herodes, ach, bedenk, wem du zu todten trachtest!


Du irrst dich, dieser Prinz will dir nicht schadlich seyn;


O, liebstes lesulein, Du mustes zeitig fliehen,

Und fur Herodes Hass hin in Egypten ziehenl

Gern will ich in der Welt auch Hass und Neid ausstehn,

Kan ich mit Frieden nur in meine Heimath gehn.

[The Journey of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to Egypt

Herod, alas, consider whom you try to kill!


You are mistaken, this prince does not want to harm you;

No, He will bring peace to you and all the world.

O beloved little Jesus, you must timely flee.


Gladly will I endure hate and envy in the world,

If I can with peace go to my homeland.]

(Translation: Patricia Lysaght)

A chest-print from the Swedish printer, Carl Gustav Berling, is adorned with a rhymed text where the peace-motif evidently was taken from Thiele’s German text. N. E. Lundstrom took his text from two verses of the Swedish hymn-book of 1819 (nr 75:8,16). N. P. Lundberg has a text primarily addressed to children. These differing texts show the printers’ desire to assert their individuality in a competitive market.

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt: Printing History

It seems that the motif of the Holy Family resting under a date-palm was introduced to Scandinavia by the book-printer Thomas Larsen Borup, operating out of number 150 Helig Geist Straede, in Copenhagen from 1756 to 1770. In 1771 his widow Rebecka Borup married the book-printer and chest-printer Johan Rudolph Thiele (1736-1815), who was born in Lippe, Westphalia, but who had come to Copenhagen in 1748, and had previously worked in Berling’s printing-house. After his marriage to Rebecka Borup, Thiele took over the Borup printing establishment and even Borup’s printing-blocks (Nielsen 1983).

Danish scholar V. E. Clausen has hypothesised that Thiele created a companion-piece for his “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” which showed the “Return from Egypt” (1985, no. 47), and it has been suggested that the Swedish bookprinter Carl Gustaf Berling copied the two Danish pictures. This ascription depends on dating Berling’s print of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” to 1795, as I did in an earlier paper (Bring6us 1995b, 141). However, I have subsequently found another print which shows that Berling had published “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” earlier, in 1759, when he started making chest-prints in Lund. The 1759 print closely resembles that of 1795, except that the depiction of the plants in the foreground is somewhat marred. Because Berling printed the motif as early as 1759, it follows that he must have taken his design directly from a Borup print.

Immanuel Smitt of Gothenburg also printed the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” and the “Return from Egypt”: neither of these is dated, but they must have been created between 1735 and 1781 when Smitt was active (Klemming Nordin 1983, 256). A print of the two pictures is preserved in Blekinge district museum in Karlskrona, Sweden (inventory no. 2047). In an earlier paper, I suggested that Smitt copied Thiele’s picture (Bringeus 1995, 371), but the similarities between Berling’s and Smitt’s prints show that it was Berling’s that was copied.

Berling’s block was borrowed by N. E. Lundstrom of Jonkoping, but he used it only for one edition of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” which he published in 1831 (Bringeus 1999, 102 f.). In 2001 I bought a pirated print of the motif without date or place of printing in the antiques market in Helsingborg, Sweden. Identical worm-holes in the wooden stock identify it as having been produced at the Lundstrom’s printing-house in Jonkoping. Perhaps it was made by a journeyman printer, who sold it on the market to earn a shilling? The book-printer N. P. Lundberg of Lund also repeatedly printed the motif: in 1839, 1843, 1844 and 1852 (Bringeus 1995b, 227), setting it beside the “Return from Egypt,” with the “Rest” to the right and the “Return” to the left (see Figure 2). He had started producing chest-prints in 1839 after having bought a collection of blocks from Tribbler’s publishing-house in Copenhagen. These blocks had earlier been used by both Borup and Thiele (Bringeus 1995b, 217).


Borup’s Source

Many threads in the publishing history of chest-prints showing “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” lead back directly or indirectly to Thomas Larsen Borup. In an earlier article I have shown that Borup’s “Return from Egypt” can be traced to Shelte a Bolswert (c.1630/1645) after Rubens (Bringeus 1995a :367 ft.). But what was his source for the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt?”

In the antiques market in Helsingborg in the summer of 2001 I found an engraving with this motif (Figure 3). It was similar to the chest-prints, and on closer inspection it was evident that the engraving was a mirror image of a pattern directly or indirectly used by Borup. There is agreement in detail after detail (Figure 3). The trees in the background are palm and sycamore, but Berling’s print omits the fruit on the twig in front of Joseph and adds a gloria. In Berling’s print we do not get a glimpse of Herod’s henchmen in the middle distance, as we do in the engraving. The text under the engraving reveals that it is dedicated to Duke Wilhelm V, who promoted the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. Johan Sadeler belonged to a Flemish artistic family. He was born in Brussels in 1550, came to Munich in 1589, and died in Venice in 1600. In Munich he was employed at court as an engraver from 1589 to 1595 (Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Kudnstler 29 [1935]:300; de Ramaix 1999). The text also leads us directly to the source of the picture a painting by Christoph Schwartz who was born in Munich around 1545 and died there in 1592. Schwartz, who is said to have been a pupil of Tizian, was one of the best-known German painters of the time and one of the pioneers of the Italian high renaissance in southern Germany. Reproductions of Schwartz’s paintings were made by many engravers. Allgemeines Kunstlerlexikon mentions the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Johan Sadeler (Allgemeines Lexikon 30 [1936]:360; de Ramaix 1999, 188). Since Sadeler evidently had access to Schwartz’s painting during his time in Munich, the engraving must be from the same period. Isabelle de Ramaix has listed twenty-three museums in Europe and the U.S.A. which hold this special engraving. To these can now be added the newly-found example here reproduced.[5]

Is it possible, then, that the Scandinavian chest-print showing “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” derives directly or indirectly from Sadeler? In favour of this hypothesis is the fact that my investigation into a great number of pictures in Rijksburreau voor kunsthistorische documente in the Hague has not yielded any examples of similar engravings that might have been the intermediate patterns. On the other hand, there is a similar engraving in the picture-work Rondom kerst, published by the Rijksmuseum Het Catharijneconvent, which was made by Christoffel van Sichem and included in an illustrated Dutch Bible edited in Antwerp by Pieter Iacobsz Paets in 1646 (Wustefeld 1990, 65). It is not a mirror image of Sadeler’s engraving. Even the subsidiary motif of Herod’s henchmen can be seen in the background and Joseph has no gloria. It is also possible that Borup used an illustrated Bible, printed some time earlier than the engraving. However, if that were so it is probable that other motifs would also have been borrowed from the same source. But this not the case. I conclude, therefore, that Borup found an engraving from Sadeler and in the usual manner made a mirror-copy.

Although Sadeler’s engraving is a typical product of the Counter-Reformation period this has not prevented its diffusion to Protestant countries. Its clarity and beauty would have made it attractive to chest-print makers. The motif is also connected to Christmas; it was common in southern Sweden to pin up chest-prints and to call them “Christmas-prints.”

The “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” as a Motif in Wall-Hangings

As a way of concluding this article, I want finally to look briefly at the influence of chest-prints of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” on another form of folk art. The great exhibition of wall-hangings which was held in the Lund Konsthall (art gallery) at the end of 1978 and the beginning of 1979 included a hanging from Blekinge in southern Sweden, with “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” This had elements which were clearly derived from the chest-print. But the town scene was placed in the foreground to achieve a strong decorative effect and to add depth to the picture. The painter also changed the old palm into two young trees which bend over the Holy Family. Joseph’s hat and the way he holds his hand show an association with the chest-print which probably stems from Berling’s printing-house in Lund (Bringeus 1998, 28). Per Udd from Jamshog has been confirmed as the painter of the wall-hanging (Mellander 1986; Bringeus 1998, 469).

Many more examples of the motif, all from Sunnerbo district in Smailand in southern Sweden, can be found in the database of Folklivsarkivet in Lund, although it is difficult to be sure that the chest-print was the pattern, because the picture is very simplified. On a wall-hanging from 1844 in the Nordic Museum (NM 52.322 a) (Figure 4) Joseph is seen with the donkey at one side of a tree and Mary with the child at the other, and a tree bends over each. But in this case the connected motifs, the “Dream of Joseph” and the “Return from Egypt,” help us to confirm the chest-print as the source.


A wall-hanging from Sunnerbo preserved in the county museum of Halmstad, Sweden (HM 4587 b), has the same surrounding motifs. Here the palm-tree is even more dominant. Joseph is inappropriately bearing an axe over his shoulder, a loan from the motif of the “Return from Egypt” (see Figure 2). A privately-held wall-hanging by the same artist shows Joseph bearing a saw (File nr 273, Folklivsarkivet). In another Sunnerbo painting the donkey has been painted in full. The angels in the tree have been omitted in the Sunnerbo paintings for want of space. The headings of the pictures read “Joseph’s Flight into Egypt,” or “Concerning Joseph’s and St Mary’s Journey to Egypt,” or in close connection to Berling’s chest-print: “Jesus and his Parents’ Flight to Egypt.”

However, the motif did not have the same influence on Dalecarlian folk art. Svante Svardstrom gives only seventeen paintings with the motif of the “Flight into Egypt” between 1813 and 1867; even so, they only represent the journey with the donkey, not the rest under the palm-tree (Svardstrom 1949, 118).


[1] The relic was brought to Lund from Heliopolis, Egypt, by a Swedish carpenter in 1877 (Carelli 2002, 102).

[2] However, I doubt that the tree, which refreshed St Mary during the journey, would have been reproduced in the church of Ferring in western Jutland about the year 1200 as Rasmussen says (1987, 94) since “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” did not become an independent pictorial theme until the fourteenth century (Nitz 1989, 481).

[3] Joseph looks almost like a side-figure in the picture as in the “Jesus Childhood-Book.” But during the Baroque era his position was strengthened, and from 1621 he even got a feast day of his own in the Roman festival-calendar (Erlemann 1993, 198). In the church art of today the motif of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” is undergoing a renaissance for example, in a glass-painting by Hugo Gehlin in the chapel of St Anna in Malmoe St Peter, in southern Sweden.

[4] Lundstrom’s heading is “A Rest during Joseph’s and St Mary’s Flight with Jesus.”

[5] Sadeler made one more engraving with the motif of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” around 1600, in this case after Maarten de Vos (Wustefeld 1990, 67). The Dutch engraver Henry Goltzius (1558-1617) also made an engraving in 1589 which was similar to Sadeler’s picture. Here the Holy Family rests under a cherry-tree (Erlemann 1993, 47).

References Cited

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Bringeus, Nils-Arvid. Skanska kistebrev. Stockholm: Carlssons bokforlag, 1995b. Bringeus, Nils-Arvid. “Malade bonader i sydsvenska bondstugor.” In Signums svenska konsthistoria. Den gustavianska tiden. 453-69. Lund: Bokforlaget Signum, 1998.

Bringeus, Nits-Arvid. Kistebrev tryckta i Jonkoping. Jonkoping: Jonkopings Lansmuseum, 1999. Broby-Johansen, R. Den danske billedbibel. Kobenhavn: Gyldendal, 1947.

Carelli, Peter. “Den sten som Jesus satt pa Anders Bengtsson Gullstrands resa till Palestina och hans markliga souvenirsamling.” Kulturen (2002):96-113.

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Svairdstrom, Svante. Dalmalningarna och deras forlagor. En studie i folklig bildgestaltning 1770-1870. Stockholm: Nordiska Museet, 1949 [Nordiska museets handlingar 33].

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Weidel, Gunnel. Helgon och gengangare. Gestaltningen av karlek och rattvisa i Selma Lagerlofs diktning. Lund: Gleerup, 1964.

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Bibliographic Note

Professor Nils-Arvid Bringeus was for many years the leader of the Institute of Ethnology at the University of Lund, Sweden. He is a leading expert on the interpretation of pictorial sources, whether they come from manuscripts, books, or from the painted walls of medieval churches.

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