The Virgin has settled down to rest in a meadow on the edge of a forest. Supported by her, the child Jesus reaches out for the strawberries which an angel is offering him. Another angel is drawing water from a spring, a third is bringing a bird, while others sit in the grass and make music. Joseph, holding his hat and staff, stands, as if on guard, behind the group.
The representation of the Holy Family, who have interrupted their journey in a fresh summer landscape, has always been treated as a romantic theme. The poetic overtones of the incident may induce a sense of romanticism in the observer, but the significance of the details should not be overlooked. They are deeply rooted in the traditional symbolism of the Middle Ages. The strawberries, which the angel is offering the Child, were regarded as a divine fruit, and the exotic bird could also be taken as a symbol of paradise. The primrose in the meadow is a Marian symbol, as is the pure water gushing out of the spring. Two other plants, columbine and fumitory, should be noted in connection with the Virgin and Child. Fumitory had a special significance in folk tradition in the choice of bride and bridegroom. The symbolic identification of Jesus with the bridegroom is, of course, already known to us from the Bible (Matthew xxv). Only through an understanding of the symbolic imagery of the period can one appreciate why nature has lost its terrors as a scene of the flight and why the artist turned it into a heavenly garden, which alone seemed appropriate as a resting-place.
What is surprising in Cranach's treatment of landscape is his creation of a magical fairy-tale atmosphere which marked an entirely new approach to nature in European painting. The artist, who was then thirty-two, had embarked upon a revolutionary course, which, in the context of the first five years of the sixteenth century, marks him out as the most advanced of German painters, apart from Dürer. The Berlin panel, the first painting known to bear the artist's signature, is commonly regarded as an early work; but only because we know practically nothing of his activities before 1500.
Cranach, who came from Kronach in Franconia, was from 1505 onwards in the service of the Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony at his court in Wittenberg. A painting as unusual as The Rest on the Flight, which was completed the previous year, may well have helped him to win so notable a position. The period in which the picture was painted coincides with a visit Cranach paid to Austria, of which little is known. He did, however, design a number of woodcuts for book illustrations and painted several portraits, among them, probably, one of the wife of the Viennese scholar Dr Reuss in 1503, now in the Berlin Gallery. The Rest on the Flight was clearly inspired by the Danube landscape, and it was this same region which inspired two other German landscape-painters who went much farther along the path Cranach had opened up: Albrecht Altdorfer and Wolf Huber.
In the nineteenth century this picture was in the Sciarra collection in Rome. Bode records in his' memoirs his unsuccessful attempt in 1873 to purchase the painting. It passed, instead, into the possession of Dr Conrad Fiedler and finally, in 1902, through his heir, Hermann Levi, to the Berlin Gallery.