Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Pitcairn Flight into Egypt
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    In this brilliantly colored stained glass panel, Mary and the infant Jesus ride a donkey led by Joseph. They are fleeing to Egypt because an angel has warned Joseph of danger. King Herod's men have been ordered to kill all male babies in the region of Bethlehem because of a prophecy concerning the Messiah's birth. In the panel attention is focused on the fig Mary is plucking from a branch which hangs down in front of her. This incident is recounted in a twelfth-century version of the apocryphal "Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew" in which Mary asks Joseph for a piece of fruit because she is thirsty. He replies that rather than climb the high tree he should be walking to get water. The infant Christ then commands "Bend down your branches, O tree, and refresh my mother with your fruit." In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, this story attaches itself to the nativity and changes to explicitly address Joseph's resentment as a cuckolded husband. In the N-Town play of "The Nativity" he says
    Your desire to fulfil I shall attempt surely
    Oh, to pluck you these cherries is a work wild
    For the tree is so high it will not be easy,
    Therefore let him pluck the cherries who got you with child!

    This stained glass panel is part of an important collection of medieval art at the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia. Scholars believed that it was a modern-day forgery until art historian Michael Cothren in 1977 closely examined the quality of the glass and details of the painted faces. Subsequent research and published studies proved that the panel was largely made up of twelfth-century glass and came from the workshop at Saint-Denis, the abbey church associated with the kings of France. The panel was part of the Infancy Window which represented the Annunciation, Nativity, Flight into Egypt, and Arrival in Sotine.

    This window was part of the art and architecture program designed by Abbot Suger, the dynamic and influential leader of the Saint-Denis monastery (1122-1151). He was an advisor to generations of French kings and served as regent for Louis VII when he went on the Second Crusade. In renovating the abbey church, Suger heightened the walls, adding large windows that let in an abundance of light and conveyed important themes in brilliant colors. In his text, The Book of the Consecration of the Church of Saint-Denis, Suger wrote: Then, the size of the old side aisles, likewise, had to conform
    to the dimensions of the new ones, except in that elegant and
    superb addition with its circuit of oratories that allowed the
    entire church to radiate with magnificent, uninterrupted
    light pouring through the sacred stained-glass windows that
    illuminated its interior beauty.
    This elegant atmosphere was further enhanced by tapestries, gold work and jeweled reliquaries and liturgical vessels. Suger's innovations led to the development of the Gothic style that transformed churches all across Europe.

  • Source: Glencairn Museum
  • Rights: Reproduced here with the permission of the Glencairn Museum.
  • Subject (See Also): Apocryphal Literature Egypt Jesus Christ- Infancy Joseph, Saint Mary, Virgin, Saint
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 12
  • Date: circa 1145
  • Related Work: Detail of the Virgin and child, Pitcairn Flight into Egypt, Glencairn Museum.
    Infancy window, Saint-Denis Abbey, circa 1145 with nineteenth century restorations.
    Saint-Denis Basilica website from the Centre des Monuments Nationaux.
    "The Flight into Egypt -- The Holy Refugees, The 'Simple' Images (Part I of a Series)" This blog by Margaret Duffy features images from the early Middle Ages through the nineteenth century. See also Part 2 The Flight into Egypt – The Variations. Related to this is the three-part series, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.
  • Current Location: Bryn Athyn, PA, Glencairn Museum, 03.SG.114
  • Original Location: Saint-Denis, France, Abbey of Saint-Denis, Infancy of Christ Window
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Stained glass windows;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Pot metal glass; Vitreous paint
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 52/50/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Cothren, Michael W. "The Infancy of Christ Window from the Abbey of St.-Denis: A Reconsideration of Its Design and Iconography." Art Bulletin 68 (1986): 398-420;
    Cothren, Michael W. "Joseph's Dream in the Thomson Collection: Reconsidering the Reconstruction of the Infancy of Christ Window from Suger's Saint-Denis." Arts of the Medieval Cathedrals: Studies on Architecture, Stained Glass and Sculpture in Honor of Anne Prache. Edited by Kathleen Nolan and Dany Sandron. Ashgate, 2015. Pages 107-119;
    Cothren, Michael W. "The Pitcairn Flight into Egypt." Glencairn Museum News 1 (2016). Available open access: https://glencairnmuseum.org/newsletter/2016/1/18/the-pitcairn-flight-into-egypt?rq=The%20Pitcairn%20Flight%20into%20Egypt;
    "Extracts from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew." New Testament Apocrypha Volume One. Edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher. Westminster John Knox Press, 1990. Pages 462-465;
    The N-Town Plays. A Modernization by Stanley J. Kahrl and Alexandra F. Johnston. 1999. Published on the University of Toronto Computing in the Humanities and the Social Sciences website: http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~ajohnsto/frntmt.html;
    Rudolph, Conrad. "Inventing the Exegetical Stained-Glass Window: Suger, Hugh, and a New Elite Art." Art Bulletin 93, 4 (2011): 399-422;
    Stained Glass before 1700 in American Collections: Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern Seaboard States (Corpus Vitrearum Checklist II). National Gallery of Art, 1987. Available for download: http://corpusvitrearum.us/checklists-usa/;
    Suger, Abbot of Saint Denis. Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis. Translated by Richard Cusimano and Eric Whitmore. Catholic University of America Press, 2018.