ON THE REST ON THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT
Picture this: it’s the middle of a long winter night. A young woman, nervous, apprehensive yet resolute, gives birth to a baby, with the support of her equally nervous yet steadfast husband. The child is not even his, yet he is totally supportive – a good man and true. They are surrounded by animals and are miles away from home. This is not by choice. They have no midwife.
They are, essentially, refugees.
The woman has just given birth for the first time. It’s a boy! By the grace of the universe her baby is healthy and full-term.
She’s exhausted. They are happy and nervous, like all new parents, with the added burden of being on the run. She takes a quick breath and snuggles her baby – and then, having barely delivered, they have to go. Again.
So, with the gritty determination that awakens at the moment of birth and unites the couple like never before, they pack up and flee while it’s still night and they are under cover of darkness.
And they ride, with only the stars and their steely resolve to guide them to a safe haven for the sake of their precious cargo.
They ride and ride and are tired. Eventually they realise that they have covered some distance and have not been followed, and it’s now safe to take a quick break. Small relief for the couple, who can finally catch their breath before continuing on their journey.
The first thing the woman does is to pause, scoop up her little boy and breastfeed him. She does this through instinct alone, with no one to guide her, although perhaps she has grown up seeing other women do it so she does have a vague idea. But this is her first time, and she has to feed her son – she has no other choice – he’s a hungry newborn. Infant formula won’t be invented for another 2,000 years.
The woman’s name is Mary. Her baby’s name is Jesus.
This pause is called ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ and it’s one of the most famous, most painted moments, indeed sacred moments, in Western art history. I understand why. It’s the first moment of real bonding of mother and child. It parallels the rise of landscape painting as a respected genre in itself (another vested interest of mine since I locate my own work here). It’s the first break the exhausted couple has – and lest we forget – they are refugees that have just given birth to a miracle.
Artists throughout history would have been surrounded by breastfeeding, if not witnessing their own families, then those of other people. (There are other genre paintings depicting more mundane scenes of everyday life which show breastfeeding.
I’m currently collecting and compiling images of breastfeeding in art and literature throughout history as I continue on my own journey with my child. Sometimes it’s a natural part of mundane everyday life, and other times it is revered as a sacred act. I find these references in unexpected places, when I’m not looking for them at all, and it’s a nice reminder of something that connects me to the long line of our female ancestors since time immemorial… anyone who has ever breastfed is part of this chain that links us to our original, mammalian past.
Meanwhile, in Arabia…
From the Prado Museum, Madrid:
Patinir, Joachim (1480-1524)
Rest on The Flight into Egypt
1518 – 1520. Oil on panel, 121 x 177 cm