Works from the National Gallery of Art

Gerard David - The Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Painting of Modanna and Child eating date. In the background Joseph is shown trying to pick fruit from a tree.
“The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” c. 1510, by Gerard David, oil on panel,
Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art
Postage stamp featuring a painting of Modanna and Child eating date.
1979 Christmas stamp issued October 18th in Washington, DC (Scott 1799)

This Bradbury Thompson designed 1979 Christmas stamp crops the original image by late 15th and early 16th century Netherlandish painter Gerard David. The missing elements from the painting provide some context for the scene. The cropped image in the stamp design is a half-length portrait of Mary and the baby Jesus, but the full painting is a scene of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” A donkey in the background, a basket, and the fruit in the hands of the mother and child provide clues that make the theme of the painting clear (at least to contemporaries of David). Joseph can also be seen in the upper right quadrant of the painting, gathering nuts (Hand 1986).

At the bottom of the painting, several carefully rendered plants appear in a somewhat unnatural grouping, suggesting their inclusion is not merely for added realism. As John Oliver Hand points out, moving from left to right, there is plantain which was used to curtail blood flow (associated with the coming death of Jesus), mint which may be a symbol for virtue, red strawberries which may symbolize Jesus’ blood, a three leaved fern (the trinity) to guard against the Devil, and violet, a symbol of humility. Also, in the painting but not in the stamp design, the carefully modeled folds of cloth, so characteristic of early Netherlandish painting, may be seen.

The transformation of the painting into a stamp necessarily simplified the image, and in the process changed it significantly. Instead of a symbolically rich painting, the image on the stamp becomes a more straightforward icon.