By the Rev. Lawrence Crumb, vicar of St. Andrew’s, Cottage Grove
Every day, as I sit at my computer, I look at this picture of “The Flight into Egypt” by Melchior Broederlam, a Flemish painter who lived at the turn of the Fifteenth Century. Broderlam worked for the Duke of Burgundy, perhaps the wealthiest and most powerful man in medieval France.
The picture was the greater part of a large travel poster given to me as a high school French prize, and I had it framed over fifty years ago when I moved into my first apartment.
Several years ago, when I was traveling in France, I finally saw the original in the museum of Dijon. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it is not a large canvas hanging on a wall, but one of four rather small panels painted on the outside of the wooden doors of a tryptich!
Broderlam was the first northern painter to use perspective, and this work is clearly transitional. A cistern in the foreground looks like something out of a mechanical drawing exercise, while trees in the background are totally out of perspective.
Likewise, Joseph is portrayed as a Renaissance man, forever frozen in the act of taking a healthy swig of some liquid refreshment. The blue-robed Mary and her child look like medieval saints, peering pale-faced from some stylized icon.
There is also a fourth figure, as realistically portrayed as Joseph, yet easily overlooked: the donkey.
As I think about Broederlam’s painting, I start to wonder what the donkey’s viewpoint might have been. What might that that beast of burden have said if, like Balaam’s ass, it could have talked.
I think it might have said something like this:
What a nice, peaceful life I used to have, working for Joseph and his family: trips to the market, trips to the lumber yard – small loads, short days, long nights.
Then came that long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem: what a change that was! Long hours on a dusty road. When we finally arrived at a stable, there were other animals crowding my space and making so much noise I couldn’t sleep. There wasn’t much to eat, either, especially with the best straw being used as a bed for the baby that suddenly appeared.
I sure got nervous when I heard wings fluttering just above the roof, and voices singing, too; but then some shepherds arrived and acted as if everything was all right, so I settled down again as best I could.
No sooner were we relocated to a house of our own than along came three tall men in long robes, with their servants running around and their hunch-back animals pawing the ground outside. The stuff they delivered didn’t look very good to eat, but Mary and Joseph seemed to think they were pretty good presents.
Now here we are on another long trip. We don’t seem to be headed back to Nazareth, so goodness knows where we’ll end up.
It’s a good thing Mary’s not so overweight any more, for she brought that new baby along and the total weight on my back is just as bad as before. It’s a good thing for me that Joseph likes to stop and have a drink fairly often, for that’s the only time I get any rest.
I sure hope we get back to normal in Nazareth before very much longer.
We probably have more in common with the poor donkey than with any of the other figures in the picture.
Like him, we find sooner or later that the effect of Jesus’ birth on our lives is to disrupt the familiar, predictable pattern and to present new and unforeseen challenges. Like the donkey on the road to Egypt, we don’t know where we are going and would often like to turn back.
But just as the donkey has been immortalized by Broederlam and the many other painters of this subject, so we are offered the gift of everlasting life. And, like the donkey, we also have Jesus’ company along the way.