Maria von Trapp, plus seven artists, on Jesus the refugee

Many of you know Maria von Trapp as the singing nun-turned-governess in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Julie Andrews immortalized the character in the 1965 film adaptation.

Though the musical contains fictionalized details, Maria von Trapp (née Kutschera) was, in fact, a real person. The Sound of Music is based on her memoir, which recounts her experience as a novice monastic, her time as tutor to the seven children of the widowed naval officer Georg von Trapp, her later decision to accept Georg’s marriage proposal, the formation of the Trapp Family Singers, and the family’s flight from Austria after the Nazi takeover. (Georg was offered a commission in the German Navy but refused on ideological grounds and was therefore under threat of arrest.)

Sound of Music escape scene

Film still from the final scene of The Sound of Music. In actuality the Trapp family did not escape over the Alps to freedom in Switzerland. Instead they traveled by train to Italy, and went from there to America, where they embarked on a nationwide singing tour before finally settling in Stowe, Vermont.

Maria was a woman who loved Jesus and who wrote about his life and personal influence in several books. In Yesterday, Today, and Forever, she shares how Jesus’s story entered into the life and imagination of her family. She identified strongly, for example, with his early status as refugee, because just as Jesus had to flee the wrath of Herod and make a new home for himself in another country, so did she and her family have to flee the wrath of Hitler and reestablish themselves in a foreign land.

Escaping the authorities required a lot of courage, and Maria found it in Jesus’s show of solidarity. She was sure to point out to her kids how their circumstances could help them better understand the context into which Jesus was born and spent the first several years of his life:

“Children,” I said, “I feel as though we were at the beginning of a great discovery. It seems as if Herod isn’t really dead. He keeps living under different names, like Saul and Nero, or Hitler and Stalin. He still seeks the child to destroy Him.” How close Our Lord and His family had become all of a sudden when we met them as fellow refugees! (16, emphasis mine)

Throughout the book Maria muses on the fearsomeness and loneliness of the refugee journey, gently criticizing those artists who would mislead us into assuming it to be anything other:  

Wasn’t the fright which must have chilled Joseph’s blood at the moment [when the angel told him to flee to Egypt], the same fright which we had experienced so often when we heard the cruel stories of how the Gestapo was on somebody’s heels, how they had dragged away fathers or brothers from families we knew? Wasn’t it the same fright which had finally gotten us across the border? . . . While I told my little girl the story of the flight into Egypt, I listened to it myself.  It was so new, so not at all holy-card-wise. It was so excitingly modern, the story of refugees, who, after having reached the goal, Egypt, became displaced persons—D.P.s. It was a story full of anxiety and homesickness, but also full of trust in the Heavenly Father, who in His own good time, provides a home for all refugees. . . .

We feel it now as a great privilege to have been refugees once, to know what anxiety means. The clatter of the donkey’s hooves on the cobblestones of Bethlehem, for instance: wouldn’t that wake up somebody who might report them later? . . . Oh, it is so wrong to picture the flight into Egypt as a nice, smooth hike with angels on all sides ministering to them. The angels certainly were there admiring, adoring, almost unbelieving that the Lord would not have protected His only-begotten Son by means less troublesome than this pitiful flight. Where was the Angel of Death who slew the Egyptians? Where was the angel with the fiery sword at the gates of paradise? But it was obviously the will of the Most High that the Child and His mother be saved not by supernatural interference, but by the natural means of a tedious flight. We people living many centuries later understand perhaps a little better why: He really has become “like one of us,” and we can go to Him also during a flight or a persecution, saying full of confidence, “You know how it is.” . . .

There are many lovely legends woven around this flight through the desert. Painters throughout the centuries have taken hold of them, and we see Mary resting peacefully on a green carpet of grass while Joseph is picking apples and the infant is playing with young lions. In another picture we see Jesus beckoning to a group of tall date palms, they bending down so that He can pick what He wants, or the animals of the desert coming to their aid and the Holy Family riding on zebras, giraffes, and lions. The loveliest of all these stories, however, is the one true version that nothing extraordinary happened and they had to take every step through the hot sand by themselves, shiver through the cold nights, for us, and for you and me. Since we discovered this story when we were just beginning as refugees, it warmed our hearts. It made us feel good in that company! (14–15, 84–85, 87)

Many artistic depictions of the Flight to Egypt show an angel or two ministering to the Holy Family, guiding them on their way. This is an elaboration of the scriptural account, which is limited to just three verses in Matthew (2:13–15):

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

An angelic presence is one way to visualize divine protection, so I’m not opposed to that creative choice. The family may also have found small moments of respite along the way. But I understand Maria’s concern that the overabundance of such images can cause us to ignore the harsh reality of the event and its contemporary resonances.

Here are a few paintings of the Flight to Egypt that I think Maria would have approved of.

One of my favorites is S. Sudjojono’s interpretation, which shows the Holy Family—clearly Middle Eastern—walking through a dark cloud that has only a narrow break. Joseph fixes his eyes forward, haggard but determined, while Mary turns down her eyes in fear, protectively clutching her newborn son. The sweep of their garments indicates the haste with which they move.

Flight to Egypt (Indonesia)

S. Sudjojono (Indonesian, 1913-1986), The Flight to Egypt, 1985. Oil on canvas.

Grief is a common experience for refugees—grief for the deterioration of their home country, and grief for their necessary separation from it. In Mary’s Flight into Egypt by Andrzej Pronaszko, Mary looks back toward Bethlehem with a deep sense of regret, the town where she gave birth for the first time, and which held many happy memories for her. Joseph hangs down his head, heavy with sadness, as he leads their donkey on. This grieving the loss of home is present in Erland Sibuea’s treatment as well.

Flight to Egypt (Poland)

Andrzej Pronaszko (Polish, 1888-1961), Mary’s Flight into Egypt, 1921. Oil on canvas, 56 x 48 cm.

Flight to Egypt (Indonesia)

Erland Sibuea (Indonesian), The Flight to Egypt.

Other artists use weather or topography to emphasize the arduousness of the journey. Nicholas Mynheer, for example, sets the flight against a snowy dusk, creating a cold, bleak mood. Kim Yong Gil sets a range of mountains behind the family, which dwarfs them and gives a sense of dauntingness.

Flight to Egypt (England)

Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958-), The Flight to Egypt, 2004. Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 cm.

Flight to Egypt (Korea)

Kim Yong Gil (Korean, 1940-2008), The Flight to Egypt.

Henry Ossawa Tanner painted the Flight to Egypt many times during his career, finding in it a timeliness in regard to the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to urban areas of the North and West to escape persecution during the first three quarters of the twentieth century. In Tanner’s 1925 version, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus plod on tiredly toward freedom, following a road that seems to stretch out infinitely before them.

Flight to Egypt (Tanner)

Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859-1937), Flight into Egypt, ca. 1925. Oil on wood, 43 x 43 cm. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Another Flight to Egypt that effectively captures the plight of the refugee is Salvador Dalí’s from La Bibla Sacra, which visualizes oppression as a surrealistic monster: his black claw reaches out menacingly to the Holy Family, and his gaping jaws follow closely behind. This image recalls to my mind the recent poem by Warsan Shire, “Home,” which opens “no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark.” Mary and Joseph fled to North Africa with their son so that they could save him from the assassin’s sword, and millions of people since have likewise been driven from their homes by ruling powers that sought to destroy them.

Flight to Egypt (Dali)

Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904-1989), “Ex Aegypto vocavi filium meum” (Out of Egypt have I called my son). Watercolor from La Biblia Sacra, 1964.

The Flight to Egypt (in conjunction with the Massacre of the Innocents) is the final episode of the Christmas story. Unfortunately our Christmas plays all too often leave it out—because an all-cast worship sess backed by an angelic chorus makes for a much more satisfying ending than a family on the run and a state-sponsored genocide.

But as Christians, we ought not to neglect this part of the story in our Christmastime reflections and devotions. We are called to weep with Rachel, who refuses to be comforted because her children are no more (Matthew 2:18; cf. Jeremiah 31:15). We are called to journey with Jesus and his parents on the road to Egypt, bearing in mind the many refugee journeys that are undertaken in the present day.

Syria is one of several nations in crisis right now. Syrians have been fleeing their homeland by the tens of thousands since 2011, when civil war broke out, but it wasn’t until last year that the situation really garnered international attention, aided tremendously by the publication of a photo of a three-year-old Syrian refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, lying dead on a beach. His father, Abdullah Kurdi, desperate to attain safety for his family, had paid for four spaces—for him, his wife, and his two sons—on a small inflatable boat en route to Greece. Built for eight but transporting sixteen, the dinghy capsized, and the two Kurdi children and Mrs. Kurdi all drowned.

Refugees are those who have decided to risk the peril of flight in hopes of escaping a more immediate peril—in Abdullah Kurdi’s case, ISIS. Again, Warsan Shire: “no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land.”

Below are some links I’ve collected over the last few months that provide an overview of the current refugee crisis. Much, much more has been written on it, for sure, but these are just a handful of write-ups that crossed my radar and which I found helpful. Feel free to share others in the comment field below.


A Christian imperative:

Practical steps:


This entry was posted in Current Events, History, Non-Western Art, Western Art and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Maria von Trapp, plus seven artists, on Jesus the refugee

  1. dlightingguy says:

    Another good post! It helps me to hear the struggles which Jesus’ family, (as well as the von Trapp family) must have gone through. To add to your refugee tips there is also World Relief, based here in Baltimore, which is looking for churches to help resettle refugees.

  2. Pingback: Songs about the Flight to Egypt – Art & Theology

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