The Flight into Egypt is almost as famous a tale as the Nativity itself: the baby Jesus has been born and Herod, knowing that his downfall is in the world, orders the death of every first-born male child in the country. An angel warns Mary and Joseph to flee with the infant Messiah, and they leave in haste, successfully evading the blood-thirsty king's attentions.
Before the Renaissance, art was regarded with a somewhat jaundiced eye by the authorities – who were largely indistinguishable from the Church – as being frivolous, unnecessary and scandalous. Most art, as a result, tended to be based around Biblical stories and characters, and it was only during the 1500s that artists began to dare to insert real characters – people they knew – as these biblical characters, and even to portray normal people going about their daily lives. We take it for granted these days, but Giotto would have been shocked at the idea of creating art for anything except to illustrate Biblical sagas such as this one – even though a contemporary asserted that he 'drew figures and their postures according to their nature', perhaps the earliest signs of the rebellion in art that the Renaissance was shortly to unleash.
Giotto's style is unique: fine, delicate fabrics fall in sculptured folds around bodies that are visibly solid and muscular, he had a brilliant eye for perspective that is seen best in his images of architecture: straight lines receding to the infinity point with such accuracy that it imparts an almost 3D effect onto the image. This can be seen in his depiction of the rough wild mountains that form the backdrop against the small family's flight. Mary is seated – as so often – upon a donkey, holding her infant child. Her gaze is raised skywards, where the angel is pointing the way they should go, urgency in his indicating hand and the intensity of his gaze. Joseph leads the donkey, seeming uncertain of his actions, but, presumably trusting that the heavenly messenger will see them right.
Oddly, Joseph's feet seem to be on the wrong legs, perhaps symbolising this uncertainty. A small group watches the family leave, and it is testament to Giotto's skill that it is clear that they are interested in the group's departure and yet unsure if everything is as it should be. The sky is a bright, deep blue and the ground appears to be almost chalk-white. This gives the whole image a cheerful and airy effect that is enhanced by the flattering drapes of fabric, picked out in a range of colours that give provide a cheerful, almost cartoonish aura to the work. The work was completed between 1304 and 1306, going up in a newly built chapel in Padua. The chapel, Scovegni Chapel, is still standing and is packed with frescoes, many by Giotto. Because of this, the chapel now forms part of the immense complex of the Museo Civico of Padua.