We speak literally when we say of all succeeding ages. It was one of the favorite subjects of the first, second and third centuries on the walls of catacomb chambers; and when the Arch of Triumph lifted its head in Santa Maria Maggiore, our three Kings were there, and so was the star, and so were Herod and the unwilling readers of holy prophecy; and the Divine Babe was there receiving their gifts. And the tragedy was there also; and the wail of the Bethlehem infants and the frantic cries of their mothers were lifted up in testimony to the Incarnation, to which the whole arch is a monument.
But our actual dolor, " The Flight," was not one to be treated easily in mosaic. Landscapes at that early time were very rarely attempted, and had little interest for the primitive Christians, whose minds were so seriously occupied by the fundamental dogmas of a religion for which they might at any time be called to die. The accessories, therefore, of " The Flight" being technically difficult, they included all its significance in those graphic representations, of the Murder of the Holy Innocents, which are still to be found among the cathedral treasures of Southern Europe.
We cannot suppose Our Lady to have been actually present at any of those scenes so brutally enacted at the command of Herod; but that visit of the angel to Saint Joseph in his sleep, saying, " Arise, and take the Child and His Mother, and fly into Egypt; and be there until I shall tell thee; for it will come to pass that Herod will seek the Child to destroy Him," opened to Mary all the possibilities of the danger before her. Saint Matthew is the only one of the Evangelists to give this narrative; but it is told by him so circumstantially, that this Second Dolor stands as sharply defined as Simeon's prophecy was vague, and which she now reads with an awful sense of what is still to come.
Archbishop Kenrick, in his note upon this passage in Saint Matthew's Gospel, says : " It is probable that immediately after
their (i.e., the Wise Men's) departure, the Child was brought to Jerusalem to be presented in the Temple." Then, in another note following immediately, he says of the dream : " This took place probably as Joseph, after the presentation, was on his way to Nazareth." The Gospel tells us that he arose and " took the Child and His Mother by night, and retired into Egypt."
This subject could not fail to have been treated in the miniatures which illustrated so lavishly and so touchingly all the choir books of the Middle Age monasteries; and even in the large representations of the Murder of the Holy Innocents it comes into the backgrounds, especially in architectural decorations of churches dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, as Notre Dame de Chartres ; and in Mrs. Jameson's " Legends of the Madonna" we are told, in a note, that it is " conspicuously and elegantly treated over the door of the Lorenz Kirche at Nuremberg;" indicated, as she remarks, rather than represented.
But while we are preparing ourselves for disappointment in our search for early representations of this dolor in its entirety, we find to our delight, in spite of technical difficulties as to mosaic, the whole story, pageant, tragedy, and flight, beautifully given in the second row of mosaics encrusting the domed ceiling of the ancient baptistery of Florence. These wonderful mosaics date to the year 1213, and were begun by Andrea Tafi, assisted by Gaddo Gaddi, a friend- of Cimabue; and by Apollonio, a Greek master, under whom both Andrea Tafi and Gaddo Gaddi had learned their art. This row begins with the Annunciation to Our Lady, the Visitation to Saint Elizabeth, the Nativity; and next comes the visit of the Magi, their dream in which they are warned to return another way into their own country, which they do in a sail-boat; then the Presentation in the Temple followed by Saint Joseph's Dream, in which an angel communicates the danger awaiting the Holy Child, and the actual Flight. The gentle animal on which Our Lady is seated with her Child is led by an angel, but the Child Himself stands on His Mother's knee and points the way, while Saint Joseph follows the holy group; and the Murder of the Innocents occupies the next compartment. The vivacity with which these groups are executed would make them perfectly intelligible to a child.
Still, the event can hardly be said to have been treated as a dolor, except in choir books, before the year 1400—that century in which rare tenderness of devotion quickened the imaginations of so many gifted sons of Italy. It is on the wall of a cell in the Monastery of San Marco, Florence, that we find our Flight treated as a dolor, with no other idea in mind; for it was painted there by the hand of the Angelical Brother who painted but for one purpose on these convent walls—which was to assist the meditations of the Brothers who dwelt there, whose lives were shaped and colored by the indwelling thought, not by the execution of the picture whatever it might be.
And what is this picture which, in despite of four centuries, keeps its place in every work of art, and challenges the critic with any or all of its imperfections? A barren landscape, hills and valleys, with here and there an abode more or less humble, and far off a line of the sea; just four trees, shaped for all the world like the toy trees of a child's Christmas-box. Edging the path is delicate herbage, as if it had sprung up at the moment from the atmosphere of this group; and close to us the barest outline of a mouse-colored donkey, such as we see in Italy, but living and moving, and intent on accomplishing his journey. No bridle, no rein of any sort; but we know the donkey is on the right path, that he will not falter or need urging or stumble; for on his back is seated the gentlest rider that a donkey ever bore,—the gentlest rider and the most wonderful; for she is a Virgin-Mother, and she holds to her. cheek, without a thought of aught else in the world, the promised One of Israel, the Messias of her people; the Redeemer of the whole human race, foretold to Adam and Eve even after their sin, and now come; the very Word Himself made flesh and committed to her arms, while the nation that should welcome Him and the king who should bow down to Him are seeking His life. Her soul is utterly abandoned to this one thought, all the instincts of motherhood inspiring her to shield Him, while the tender face is calm even in the anguish of her heart; and this anguish to be divined only by a gentle lifting of the eyes heavenward, and a pressure, which we feel rather than see, of the hands that hold her Babe to her cheek; while the Infant looks into His Mother's face with a confidence which assures her that all will be well. Saint Joseph follows with a step as firm, as untiring as that of the patient animal that needs no urging. The white locks fall in waves on his shoulders from under a close cap; but the simplicity of the drawing gives us a deep, far-seeing eye, and the profile of a face as intelligent in heavenly things as it is benign. He carries, on a stick over his shoulder, the garments for his family, and in his hands certain utensils which you know will be used when they pause to rest. The soul of the picture could be given in a circle which would enclose the head of the Mother, of the Child, and the encircling arms and hands. The terror which seized her when Joseph gently roused her from her sleep, told her of the vision and of the command, still freezes her; we see that she has but one care—to shield her Infant from "the terrors of the way."
We turn from all these—for our dolor is not to be found in them—and come to an artist in our own century who has given this dolor in all the supernatural environment that belongs to it, and with a charm which should convince us, once for all, that it is not the century in which we find a picture, nor the technique, however perfect, which has produced it, which makes its value (and this not only for one age but for all time), but the mind which has meditated upon, the soul which has apprehended, actually laid hold of the mystery contained in the event; and the sensibility which has come in touch with the subtlest chords in the human Heart of Mary, the human Heart of Jesus Himself. Only by a transporting of one's whole self into this subject can any artist in the least hope to put before our eyes what the Flight really was as an event even, and what it will continue to be as a dolor so long as there is one heart left on earth to compassionate that Mother guarding her Divine Infant with her virginal arms from "the terrors of the way." These two precious pictures are included by Overbeck in his " Forty Illustrations of the Four Gospels." The first of these two gives us the Dream. This Holy Family, whose never-to-be-spoken joy had come to it in the Stable of Bethlehem, had paused for the night, it would seem, in another stable, or perhaps courtyard accessible to travellers ; for we discern faintly the patient donkey unbridled at his crib in the background; while sitting on the bare floor, supported by the wall, we see Saint Joseph, his staff in his hand, in a deep sleep; made apparent by the one hand hanging limp over his knees, and by the very soles of the feet pressing on the floor, supporting him equally with the wall; a deep, deep sleep. Opposite Saint Joseph, sitting also on the bare floor, is the Virgin-Mother just leaning against the wall, one foot partly beyond her robe, the head under its mantle bent until the cheek touches the head of her Child; a very brooding of the nestling, folded—O how closely !—in her arms ; one hand of exquisite grace sustaining her elbow, to make a cradle for her darling, her first-born, of whom no slumber can make her, for one instant, unconscious. Near Saint Joseph, on a rude block of stone, stands a lamp.
But what apparition is this flooding the bare stable with a heavenly radiance ? An angel, fair and strong, vested, girded and winged, bends in haste over Saint Joseph; one hand points downward to the sleeping Mother and her Babe; the other, with a wonderfully speaking gesture, points outward and onward; and just outside the open wall we see the Mother and her still sleeping Babe, placed by Joseph's strong and gentle arms on the donkey. Above them is the fragment of an arch; and still above, in the clear, wintry air of a February night, is the crescent moon. We understand it all. Joseph, roused at once from his deep sleep, knew that he had seen a vision, understood the voice, the command. The donkey was led from his crib ; the Mother was roused without awakening the Child, and placed securely on his back, and the flight was begun ; a flight, because made suddenly but without any trepidation; and we expect to see them—just as we do see them afterward, by the hand of the Angelical Brother on the wall of a cell in San Marco—two scenes in one act.
But our second picture ? Nothing that we can recall in all the representations of the Murdered Innocents in the least equals the heartbreak of this scene. The little ones are dead,—and so beautiful in death that the hymn of Prudentius, of the fourth century, comes to mind : Ye lovely flowers of martyrs, hail!
Two lie directly before us like twins, one over the other; but the group of six mothers fills the foreground. One bears her dead infant on her knees, with uplifted arms; another buries her face, but she cannot bury her grief, in her hands; a third throws herself on the ground over her dead child and bewails him, with such tears as angels only-can dry; a fourth lays the little lifeless face to her cheek, as if trying to bring it back to life by her caresses; but the fifth, her back toward us, sees her child dead, does not touch him, but mourns, with one hand to her tortured brain, the other hanging listlessly over the little form on the ground before her; and a sixth we see rushing off* in wild despair, her hands to her ears as if to forget the death-wail of her darling.
All this in the foreground. But a middle distance comes in, the court of the Temple it might be; and up the many steps flies a mother, her child hugged frantically to her shoulder, and pursued by a murderer, who actually clutches her robe, threatens the child with his dagger; and still higher, within the portico, is another, whose child has been wrenched from her by one foot, but clinging to it still even while the murderous wound is being given.
Quite to the left stretches a line of arches, and we see—what ? The Virgin-Mother closely veiled, looking neither to the right nor to the left, her Babe held close to her cheek; the donkey ambling gently, without rein or bridle, through one of the arches; Saint Joseph following, as if the wind stirred his mantle, a bundle over his shoulder, and looking backward. O Virgin-Mother, have you heard the cry of one of these murdered Innocents, the wail of one of these mothers? And do you bear in your compassionate Heart, adding still another pang to your own dolor, the sorrows of the mothers of Bethlehem, while knowing that you are saving, by your flight, their Redeemer and your own ?
From The Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin Mary By By Eliza Allen Starr