Bernaert van Orley was a leading painter and tapestry designer who worked in Brussels in the 16th century. He is considered one of the most important artists of the day due to the fact that he introduced new elements derived from Italian painting into Flemish art. His work clearly reveals the influence of Raphael, whose oeuvre was familiar to him through Marcantonio Raimondi’s engravings. Van Orley was also acquainted with Dürer, whom he met in Brussels. In the present panel the artist combines the Roman tradition, evident in the arrangement of the figures and the pyramidal composition, with the Flemish one, to be seen in the treatment of the draperies and the minutely detailed description of the background. The overall attention to detail is striking, including the manner of painting the flowers in the foreground and the apple held by the Infant Christ, which symbolically refers to the Passion and to his role as Redeemer. The composition is inspired by a print on the same subject by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Bernaert van Orley was one of the most important “Romanist” painters of the first half of the 16th century. His style implied an assimilation of elements of Italian Renaissance painting derived from Raphael, skilfully combined with others derived from the Netherlandish tradition. He derived his knowledge of Raphael from Marcantonio Raimondi’s prints after that artist and from Raphael’s tapestry cartoons, which were in Pieter Coeck’s studio between 1514 and 1519. Van Orley had an important workshop that produced designs for tapestries and stained-glass windows in addition to paintings. He may have first trained with his father, the painter Valentin van Orley, and his earliest works date to the second decade of the 16th century, including The Saint Thomas and Matthew Altarpiece, now divided between Vienna and Brussels and dated to around 1512. Some years later Margaret of Austria began to offer the artist commissions for portraits and in 1518 he replaced Jacopo de’Barbari as court painter, a role that he continued to occupy under Mary of Hungary. It was Margaret of Austria who commissioned one of the artist’s masterpieces, the triptych of 1521 on the story of Job that also includes episodes from the story of Lazarus. It was given by the Regent to Antoine de Lalaing, Count of Hoogstraeten and is now in the Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van Belgie in Brussels.
Friedländer dated the present Rest on the Flight into Egypt to around 1515, a period when Van Orley’s studio was particularly active in the production of scenes of this type. This scene from the childhood of Christ skilfully combines elements derived from Italian art with others of Netherlandish origin. Thus the volumetric nature of the figures, the pyramidal composition and the poses of the Virgin and semi-naked Child all suggest Italian models. However, both the technique and the way of conceiving the forms, particularly the drapery, remain faithful to the northern tradition. In addition, the composition is directly influenced by Lucas Cranach the Elder as this painting is closely based on a print by that artist on the same subject. Van Orley was faithful to the print in the figure of Saint Joseph, the donkey and the tree behind the principal group, but modified all the other elements. The massive tree trunk separates the foreground from the background. The latter features a detailed landscape with two paths, and Van Orley used the path on the left to continue his depiction of the narrative.
Attention has been drawn to the flowers in the immediate foreground, painted in minute, exquisite detail. They include aquilegia, associated with Mary’s suffering and sadness, in this case her anxieties during the flight into Egypt following the Massacre of the Innocents. The lower right corner includes five, red pinks that refer to Christ’s Passion and possibly to the number of his wounds. Another symbolic element is the apple held by the Infant Christ, a clear reference to Original Sin and to his role as Redeemer.