Only a few details are know about the life of Herri met de Bles, who is generally identified as the “Henry de Patinir” registered as a Master in the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke in 1535. Some scholars have suggested he was the nephew of the great Joachim Painir, in whose footsteps Herri helped established the vast, rocky, blue-green landscapes which swiftly gained popularity in the southern Netherlands. After Patinir's death in 1524, Herri became the genre's leading and most prolific practitioner, apparently even gaining great popularity in Italy where he became known as “Civetta” due to the little owls which frequently appear in his paintings. These birds do not, however, figure in all his compositions, and even when present cannot always be a sure sign of his authorship.
The present work is an excellent example of Herri's distinctive style: eschewing the grey, craggy rock formations which in Patinir's landscapes protrude suddenly and improbably from their surroundings, Herri has sought a more cohesive effect, depicting his fantastical mountains in more realistic browns and mossy greens and arranging them such that they seem more integrated with their surroundings and the blue-green plains beyond. This tendency towards a more naturalistic vista – even if his views are entirely imagined – is typical of Herri's work, and perhaps explains why his pictures also teem with details of everyday life, from dogs dashing across patches of grass to little swans resting in the reeds along the riverbank.
This wealth of contemporary detail is perhaps also why the viewer hardly notices at first the two figures in the lower right corner, who on closer inspection are not everyday travelers: the angel, whose wings reveal his true nature, has alighted next to the sleeping Joseph to warn him to flee with Mary and the Christ Child to Egypt to escape the soldiers of Herod, while the elegant company dining in the ornate building at left can probably be identified as Herod and his companions. Although the story is, as in all Herri's pictures, secondary to the landscape, it is worth remarking that the artist has employed some ingenious narrative devices. At left, Herod has just issued the proclamation to kill all the male babies in his kingdom, initiating what will become known as the Massacre of the Innocents. A lithe dog leaps from the building's steps as if to suggest he is hurrying away with this news. The viewer's eye is led down the winding path at center, populated by various travelers, and past what may be a broken column, an allusion to the falling of pagan idols in the presence of the Christ Child. The extended vista which fills the background here reinforces the notion that the scenes at left and right take place in different locations separated by a great distance. Finally, at lower right, the angel has reached the sleeping Joseph, carrying the urgent news which the white dog, arriving just behind him, also bears.