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Francis DeStefano


I don't think it's a river god over the relief but a version of God the Father in the clouds. As for the Flight into Egypt (despite the additional figures), I can only surmise that the plight of the Holy Family on their journey is equated with the needs of the blind and the poor.


David Packwood

Thanks Frank. I see those clouds now. Though it's God the Father, the source looks like a river god, which is what I was getting at. I suppose that obvious pagan reference coupled with Cristian symbols like the orb/cross would reinforce this idea of paganism trounced by the Church.

The Flight into Egypt group completely baffles me, though that charitable aspect might make sense. I know a lot about 17th century versions of this, and this iconography is completely new to me.


A Facebook User

The whole symbolism in this painting seems garbled. The River God on top of the sarcophagus harks back to revered old times; Borromeo is the figurehead of the counter-reformation here, as such the images of the Roman river god and God the Father come together in this figure. At least that's what I assume the figure intends to convey but I could be wrong.

A Facebook User

As to the Flight into Egypt group, a thought: the "attendant" needn't belong to it, he might belong to the blind boy and girl, guiding them across the stream?

David Packwood

Yes, I agree the "servant" might have nothing to do with the Holy family Group. The iconography of this pictures just seems thrown together though, rather than thought out!

A Facebook User

I've been in touch with the Rijksmuseum who tell me that the scene on the sarcophagus was inspired by an "Adoration of the Shepherds" that was attributed in the first half of the 17th c. to Raphael but now to Girolamo da Treviso. It is in Christ Church Picture Gallery, unfortunately their website seems to be down but I've found an engraving after it: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_image.aspx
I've looked further and apparently there are four versions of the painting by Da Treviso; the one in Oxford, one in Dresden (can't find it there) and two more, whereabouts unknown. Vasari writes that Girolamo traveled to England to work as a military engineer for Henry VIII and that he also worked as a painter there. Girolamo was working as an engineer for Henry when killed by a cannon shot during the siege of Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1544. This is interesting in connection with our Ferguson painting as it puts him both in England and France. The print is engraved by Cornelis Bloemaert, son of the famous painter Abraham. who moved to Paris and settled in Rome before 1633 where he was pretty famous. In other words: I'm not so sure that the painting was the absolute source; perhaps the print was, which would have been far more widely accessible. But that's speculation.

Francis DeStefano


The "servant" is holding the lead of the Ass and so must be connected with the Holy Family. What is strange is that Joseph is riding a horse, something I've never seen before.


David Packwood

Thanks Frank. It's either that this is original, "Innovative" iconography; or the painter is completely clueless about what all these symbols mean. Even Panofsky might have problems with this one!

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This is a great blog.Very pleased to see your blog .

Duncan Bull

As the curator at the Rijksmuseum responsible for this picture, I was amused and delighted to find this blog.

Far from being "unearthed from the depths of the Rijksmuseum", the painting was acquired only in 2009; and although I have got well on the way to explaining most of its oddities, including the Flight into Egypt, the almsgiving, the presence of St Charles Borromeo, and the probable identity of the cleric to whom he is speaking, I still have quite a few loose ends to tie up. As these are probably to be found only in archives in Bologna and Milan, for which I have no time and which would anyway be like looking for needles in a haystack, I shall shortly write up what I have managed to discover. It involves a fair amount of sculduggery.

If anyone wants to help in spotting visual sources, I would be most grateful. Ferguson (if it is indeed he; the attribution is faute de mieux but probably o.k.) almost certainly relied on prints, and if there are citations from older masters, they will probably be in reverse. The boy reaching up to receive alms from the cavaliere at the right, for example, is ultimately derived from Raphael's Fire in the Borgo; but Ferguson seems to have adapted the motif either from Domenichino's St Cecelia giving arms, or, more likely, from An. Carracci's St Roche giving alms. I suspect that several other figures can be tracked down in this way.

The Flight into Egypt group is particularly intriguing. I cannot think where it can come from; and I have never seen anywhere else the Virgin giving suck while riding the ass!

Aficionados of sarcophagi might like to look up Caroselli's Flight into Egypt in Palazzo Barberini...

Any answers by email, please: d.bull@rijksmuseum.nl as I am not a facebook user nor a dedicated blog follower.


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Gui Rochat

Henry Ferguson is indeed a follower of Francisque Millet II but more explicit in his Roman ruins. I bought recently a charming small canvas by him which reflects equally influences from Poussin and Dughet I will try to send an image to Duncan Bull

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