Titian’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt: coveted by aristocrats, emperors and archdukes — and once left at a bus stop

Painted when the artist was in his late teens or barely 20 years old, this masterpiece is first documented in the collection of a Venetian spice merchant in the early 17th century. It has since hung in London, Brussels, Vienna, Paris and Longleat House in Wiltshire — from where it was stolen and later recovered by an art detective

Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian (circa 1485/90-1576), The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (detail). Oil on canvas, laid on panel. 18¼ x 24¾ in (46.2 x 62.9 cm). Estimate: £15,000,000-25,000,000. Offered in Old Masters Part I on 2 July 2024 at Christie’s in London

Tiziano Vecellio (‘Titian’) demonstrated an astonishing talent for art at an early age. It’s said that, as an infant, he astounded all around him by painting a Madonna on a wall, using the nectar of flowers as his colours. Aware of his gift, his family sent him — aged around 10 — from their native village of Pieve di Cadore, in the Dolomite foothills, to Venice. There he would become an apprentice in the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, the city’s leading painter at the time.

One can only imagine the impact that Venice — then the wealthiest, most dazzling, most cosmopolitan place in Europe — had on the boy from the provinces. Pieve di Cadore was just 130 kilometres north, yet also a world away. ‘Great men built Rome,’ wrote Titian’s peer, the poet Jacopo Sannazaro, ‘but Venice was built by gods.’

The artist’s early pictures were often intimate in scale. They also reveal — in contrast to the expressive brushwork that characterises the paintings from his latter years — a deliberate application of paint. On 2 July 2024, one such picture — the early masterpiece The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, among the last paintings from the start of Titian’s career to remain in private hands — leads the Old Masters Part I sale at Christie’s in London.

It was inspired by an event recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (2: 13-23). Joseph had been warned in a dream that Herod, the King of Judea, was intent on killing the young Christ, so he promptly took Mary and the child to Egypt for safety. Titian depicts the Holy Family resting in a rural spot en route, presumably taking a break on their tough journey.

Positioned centre-left in the composition, they are silhouetted against a luminous sky and counterbalanced by a receding pastoral landscape. Despite the picture’s intimate scale, the figures appear monumental — the Madonna in particular, her solid form reminiscent of that of other Titian heroines from the same period, such as Mary Magdalene in Noli me Tangere (circa 1514), now in the National Gallery in London.

Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian (circa 1485/90-1576), The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Oil on canvas, laid on panel. 18¼ x 24¾ in (46.2 x 62.9 cm). Estimate: £15,000,000-25,000,000. Offered in Old Masters Part I on 2 July 2024 at Christie’s in London

Her feet planted firmly on the ground, the Madonna wraps Jesus in a protective embrace at the centre of the canvas. The pair are shown in suspended animation, in an intimate moment of tenderness between mother and son. The latter, somewhat fidgety, leans into his mother, tugging at her hair.

Joseph is set slightly apart, seated on a rocky bank near the plane where the Madonna and Child sit. His hunched pose conveys a sense of exhaustion, as does his sensitively rendered, ageing face.

The year of Titian’s birth is not known. It’s generally thought to have been between 1488 and 1490, meaning that The Rest on the Flight into Egypt — which likely dates from the end of the first decade of the 16th century — was painted when he was in his late teens or barely 20 years old.

For one so young, he shows quite the grasp of sentiment and humanity. Both Joseph and Mary look pensive, reflecting a slight foreboding in the air. The white swaddling cloth on the latter’s knee, from which her son has momentarily been freed, alludes to the shroud with which Christ’s body will be wrapped for burial years later.

The figure of Mary Magdalene in Titian’s Noli me Tangere, circa 1514, is reminiscent of the Madonna in The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. National Gallery, London. Photo: Bridgeman Images

It’s worth noting also the influence of Giorgione — another pupil of Bellini’s, a decade or so Titian’s senior — who had recently pioneered a type of painting called the ‘mood landscape’. That is, a scene of human subjects in a landscape, where the latter sets the emotional tenor rather than serving merely as a background. In the case of The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, the large tree in the middle distance echoes Joseph’s pose while providing shelter to the Holy Family.

The lush, verdant setting is less reminiscent of Egypt than of the places that the artist would have encountered between Venice and Pieve di Cadore on his regular trips back home. His early biographer, Carlo Ridolfi, argued that Titian showed such mastery at painting landscape that nature, ‘which had before considered itself insuperable, was now conquered’.

In the early 16th century, Venice was a trade hub for dyes and textiles, offering artists unprecedented access to a range of imported pigments. It was in such a context that Venetian Renaissance painters gained renown for the vibrancy and brilliance of their colours, Titian as much as anyone.

‘With unprecedented access to a range of imported pigments, Venetian painters gained renown for the vibrancy and brilliance of their colours’

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt is dominated by primary colours. Mary wears a deeply saturated red robe. This is offset by the long ultramarine-blue cloak on which she sits, and by the bright yellow mantle worn by Joseph.

It’s not known who commissioned the painting. It is first documented in the early decades of the 17th century in the collection of the Venetian spice merchant Bartolomeo della Nave — a collection which, in the words of the architect Vincenzo Scamozzi, was seen by ‘all the virtuosi of Venice’. This included no fewer than 15 Titians, as well as works by all the city’s major Renaissance painters, such as Bellini, Giorgione and Veronese.

After della Nave’s death, most of his artworks were purchased by James Hamilton, 3rd Marquess and 1st Duke of Hamilton, in 1638 and sent to London. Not that the pictures remained on the latter’s walls for long: he was a Royalist who would be executed in 1649 by the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War.

David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria in his Picture Gallery in Brussels, 1647-51. Oil on copperplate. 106 x 129 cm. The present work is illustrated to the right of the door at the centre of the painting. Prado, Madrid. Photo: Bridgeman Images

Hamilton’s collection was acquired by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, the Habsburg governor of the Spanish Netherlands. Leopold was in the process of assembling one of the finest art collections of his age. Alongside the della Nave-Hamilton pictures, he bought masterpieces by the likes of Hans Holbein, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Jan van Eyck and Raphael. He owned more than 1,300 paintings and displayed them across a suite of galleries in Coudenberg Palace, his residence in Brussels.

The collection was such a source of pride that Leopold asked the artist David Teniers to commemorate it in a set of kunstkammer paintings (depictions of gallery interiors, featuring artworks in situ on the walls). The Rest on the Flight into Egypt duly appears in one these paintings. The work was given by the archduke to his cousin, Philip IV of Spain, and is today in the Prado in Madrid.

After Leopold relocated to Vienna in the mid-1650s, his collection travelled with him, and ended up at the Belvedere Palace. The Titian was subsequently one of several pictures looted by Napoleonic troops during the French occupation of the city in 1809. It was removed to Paris, only to be returned to Vienna in 1815 after Napoleon’s fall.

Sign up for Going Once, a weekly newsletter delivering our top stories and art market insights to your inbox

The painting’s next owner was Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro, a Scottish landowner who was among J.M.W. Turner’s most important patrons. Following his death, Munro’s collection of modern art and Old Master pictures was sold in two separate sales at Christie’s in 1878, with The Rest on the Flight into Egypt being acquired by John Alexander Thynne, 4th Marquess of Bath.

The picture was taken to Longleat House, the 4th Marquess’s home in Wiltshire, where it has hung in the State Drawing Room pretty much ever since. It made headlines for being stolen in 1995, then made them again seven years later when it was found in a bag at a bus stop in south-west London by Charles Hill, a leading art detective of the day. Hill promptly returned the work to Longleat.

This is a painting, then, that has been coveted by aristocrats, archdukes and emperors alike: prized for its vividly coloured scene of familial affection within the natural world. Like its subjects, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt has been on a long and eventful journey — a journey that’s far from over.

Classic Week — Art from antiquity to the 20th century — takes place from 2 to 10 July at at Christie’s in London. Highlights include Titian’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, the rediscovered The Madonna of the Cherries by Quentin Metsys and Frans Hals’s Portrait of a gentleman of the de Wolff family. The pre-sale view opens on 28 June

Related lots

Related auctions

Related stories

Related departments