The gentle father 1535

In the early sixteenth century, with the ever-increasing sophistication of the new printing, now including devotional books of improving quality, the miniaturists seem to have excelled themselves in a final flourish of colour and delicacy, marked by a gentle realism made all the more vivid because the colours have been so well preserved in the closed pages of a book.

This example is from France. The artist has here chosen the flight into Egypt, always a subject less dramatic than its title suggests. It offered the chance to portray the Holy Family in all their simplicity, without the wonders that accompanied the birth. What is delightful about this illustration (it is no longer incorporated into the text) is how it answers the contemporary question, ‘What is the role of a father?’

Mary, holding Jesus (who is unusually tiny and helpless) is beautifully poised and self-contained, riding the donkey with exquisite elegance. At first sight, it would be the easiest thing to excise Joseph altogether; and a second glance suggests that he too is entirely self-reliant, fully equipped for the journey, with good shoes, hat, staff, cloak and all their possessions.

Then you see how completely he has turned towards mother and child – so much so that the artist has not quite succeeded technically. In a physical sense, he could leave Mary even more easily than she could do without him. And yet, it is manifestly obvious that this independent man, by the way he points to Jesus and looks with love at his wife, could not be anywhere but at their side to guide and protect.