Art and the Church
The Flight to Egypt by He Qi
Word and Image Bible Study based on Matthew 2:13-23 and The Flight to Egypt by He Qi
Target group For small groups or personal study
The Flight to Egypt is a painting by the contemporary Chinese artist He Qi [pronounce Huh Chee] (1951). He Qi grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In order to escape hard labor on the fields he started painting Mao portraits. One day he saw Rafael’s painting of Madonna and Child in an old art magazine. He was immediately drawn to the peaceful smile of Jesus’ mother, leading to his interest in Christianity. He Qi studied art at the Nanjing Art College and received his doctorate in Religious Art there (the first in China) in 1993 after having studied medieval art at the Hamburg Art Institute, Germany. Religious art from the middle ages often shows biblical scenes with European-looking people in European settings. This inspired He Qi to depict biblical stories against a Chinese background with Chinese characters. He Qi’s work shows the influence of medieval European art as well as his familiarity with Chinese folk art, such as woodcuts, paper cutting, traditional weaving and embroidery.
The Flight to Egypt is a semi-abstract painting. People, animals and elements of the landscape can be recognized, but they are not realistically painted. This allows the artist to portray feelings and meaning by way of the cutting lines, the different elements within the painting and the bright, contrasting colors.
Aim The aim of this study is to find a new way into the biblical text by means of He Qi’s work. This particular passage in Matthew is not often the subject of sermons or Bible studies, although it has been a fruitful source of inspiration for many painters through the centuries. He Qi’s painting can help us explore the text, find new significance and make connections between this - seemingly insignificant - story and the larger narrative of God. We will examine several elements of The Flight to Egypt and discover how He Qi has translated his understanding of the biblical text into images. We shall do this by asking questions of the painting. It is important that you first read and reflect on the text and painting before you read the explanatory passages (printed in blue). Learning about the meaning of symbols in art will be helpful, but art also encourages a personal reading, leading to personal associations, interpretations and awareness. A group discussion and an exchange of our understanding can be an enriching experience resulting in a deeper appreciation of the text and the painting.
Scripture Reading Read Matthew 2, verses 13-23. Discuss the broad outline of this chapter on the basis of the questions below.
1. Who are the persons who appear in these paragraphs? Which places are connected with these passages?
2. This story only appears in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew is particularly interested in pointing out the fulfilled prophecies to show that the Messiah is the fulfillment of Jewish religious hope. How many prophecies are mentioned in this passage?
3. The first prophecy in verse 15 comes from Hosea 11:1. Read Hosea 11:1-4. How does this prophecy relate to Jesus? What is different here between Jesus and Israel? How would the first (Jewish) Christians have read this reference?
4. The third prophecy in verse 23 does not have a direct correlation with an Old Testament scripture. Matthew’s mention of ‘the prophets’ underscores that the choice of Nazareth as the place where Jesus grew up was not by accident, but part of God’s design and plan. How does Nazareth figure in Jesus’ life?
The Flight to Egypt painting If possible, project the painting unto a large screen, a computer or television screen. Or look up the painting in a book. Take a few minutes to look at the painting in silence. Do not discuss it immediately. What do you observe in this painting? What is the mood of this painting? What time of day is it? What are its most striking features?
We will now take a look at the various elements of the painting.
First of all, there are several straight, black lines that cross the painting from side to side and some lines that stop or start at the intersection with another line. What kind of emotion does this evoke? Does it remind you of European medieval art?
He Qi has used a number of black lines that cut through the painting. They often disrupt the form or the color of the figurative elements. This gives an unsettled feeling, as if we look into a broken mirror. Joseph had to disrupt the plans for his family because of the power-hungry actions of King Herod. Joseph must take his family and flee in the night (against a black sky with a sickle moon). Jesus, the Son of God, was not spared this human lot of being subject to political manipulation and violence. He can identify with the estimated 11-12 million refugees in the world today, who have also fled from situations that are somehow life-threatening.
The brightly colored broken forms raise the association with stained glass windows in European cathedrals. Stained glass windows often depict biblical scenes, the holy family, and scenes from Jesus’ life. They also frequently include clues from the landscape to indicate where the scene takes place. In the case of He Qi’s painting we see pyramids, a palm tree and a cactus – Joseph, Mary and Jesus are in the desert of Egypt. The apple in Jesus’ hand (referring to the fact that he takes away the sin of the world) and the dove in the left lower corner (referring to the presence of the Holy Spirit) are also classical elements in European religious art.
One slanted line cuts the painting in two almost equal but asymmetrical parts. It runs from the top left of Joseph’s face to the right bottom of Mary’s skirt. In the middle, the line divides Jesus’ face in two. Could this refer to the dual nature of Jesus: both man and God? Or maybe it points towards the joy and the suffering, the highest glory and the deepest rejection that Jesus would experience in his life?
Let’s look a little closer at the surroundings. How many pyramids do you see? Is there anything that strikes you about them? What is the association of pyramids with the Old Testament? What are the positive stories about Egypt? What are the negative ones?
In the painting, the pyramids are represented in a number of intersecting triangles. The one in the middle and to the right seem to stand solidly on the ground, positioned to stay there for many more centuries. The pyramid on the left, however, is sliding down, as if the coming of the Son of God is undermining the unshakable power of Egypt. It is a reminder that all power and authority belong to Christ, even when it looks as if the nations and rulers of the world determine the course of history.
Just as Joseph, Mary and Jesus found a temporary refuge in Egypt, so have other people in the story of Israel: Abram and Sarai (Gen 12:10-20); Jacob and his sons (Gen 42), Jeroboam (fleeing from Solomon, I Kings 11:40) and the people of Judah (fleeing from Nebuchadnezzar against God’s command, Jer. 43:7). Most often, though, Egypt is mentioned in the Old and New Testament in connection with God’s rescue of the people of Israel out of Egypt, the Exodus. Against that background, Egypt is the place of enslavement, where the Israelites were ‘strangers in a foreign land,’ under the merciless power of Pharaoh.
The desert plays an important role in the Bible. After their disbelief and disobedience the Israelites wandered in the Sinai desert for 40 years. It was the place where God formed them into a people, where he gave them his law and his tabernacle. In the desert God did miracles of healing, provision and guidance. There the Israelites learned to be the people of God.
We see many elements of the Exodus story reappear in Jesus’ life. He was in the desert for forty days but, in contrast to the people of Israel, he remained obedient to God when he was tempted.
He was the perfect Passover lamb, sacrificed for us, just as the Israelites sacrificed a lamb in Egypt, so that the Angel of Death would pass over them. Jesus is also the fulfillment of the Law and when he became incarnate, he came to ‘tabernacle’ among us (John 1: 14), just as God inhabited the Tabernacle to live among his people.
Now let’s look at the figures in the painting. Joseph, Mary and Jesus are placed very closely together. What are your impressions of the three of them as a family and each of them separately? What role does the donkey play? And the dove?
Mary and Jesus’ faces are soft and round, but Joseph’s face is made up of four straight lines. His face speaks of determination, it is ‘set like flint’ – see Isaiah 50:7, a passage that predicts Jesus’ suffering. Joseph must have been an extraordinary man, chosen for the task of rearing the Son of God, just as Mary was chosen to be the mother. He believed Mary’s explanation of the divine pregnancy and he married her although he was under no lawful obligation. He cared for his family against great odds and was obedient to God without hesitation whenever God appeared to him in a dream.
Joseph’s one arm is stretched out ahead, as if to show the way, while his other hand holds a peasant’s knapsack with a few belongings. The arm, Joseph’s head, his (invisible) body and the stick form a cross, already looming over Jesus. Joseph’s square determination is in balance with his inner flexibility and obedience to God’s guidance through his dreams. Mary, with all her curves, looks very soft and gentle, holding her precious Child. And yet, she has an inner strength and courage as she “treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2: 19, 51). She wears a simple necklace with a small cross, a symbol of the sorrow that was to come, the sword that was to pierce her heart (Luke 2: 35).
Jesus is portrayed in the tradition of Chinese painting: a round-faced child, bald except for a tuft of hair on his forehead. Compared to him it looks as if Joseph and Mary are wearing masks, as if to indicate the difference between them (and us), sinful human beings, and the Son of God, perfectly human as humans were created to be.
The donkey would have been a mere beast of burden, if it wasn’t for his human eyes. He Qi often paints big eyes– copying the style of paper cutting in which eyes have to be large in order to connect paper line to paper line (nothing can ‘float’ in a paper cutting). The fierce expression of the donkey, enhanced by the red nostrils that seem to breathe fire, reminds us of Balaam’s donkey (Num. 22: 22-35). Does this donkey also see spiritual realities that human eyes cannot see? Does the donkey see the Holy Spirit in the form of the dove? Interestingly, in traditional European art, the dove of the Holy Spirit is placed in the top half of paintings, descending (as in Mark 1:10). Here the dove is ascending, pointing straight at the tight-knit group of three. The motion of the dove is directly at the holy family, as if the Holy Spirit is encircling them with God’s presence and God’s peace.
The portrait of this family is one of poverty: they travel walking and riding a donkey, instead of riding on a horseback or in a chariot. He Qi has painted them in traditional rural costumes: Joseph and Mary’s headdress, the fabric of the knapsack and of Mary’s dress, the slipper visible of Jesus’ foot, embroidered with a cat (or lion)’s head. The family brings only a few things with them to eke out an existence in exile. And yet, the recent events of angel visits, prophecies fulfilled, tributes of foreign dignitaries and valuable gifts must have been a rich source of comfort, strength and future hope.
Jesus is seated on Mary’s lap. We can only see one foot (with the embroidered slipper) pointing down, as if he has his other leg curled underneath him. Chinese viewers of this painting will certainly be reminded of the traditional Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, who is traditionally depicted in a similar pose. Kuan Yin is revered as bodhisattva, one who has reached nirvana but who decided to come back to show people the way of salvation. That is why she is portrayed as if ‘stepping down’ from her seated position. This posture is furthermore known as her pose of royal play, to represent the ceaseless play of creation. How much more do these designations belong to Jesus! He is truly the Lord of Compassion because of his sacrifice on the cross. He is the One in whom all things were created and who holds all things together. He is the King of kings, who will one day come back in glory!
Three final questions
1. Do you think that He Qi has done justice to the biblical text?
2. Which part of the painting speaks to you the most?
3. How has the painting deepened your understanding of the text?
This study is prepared by Cisca Ireland-Verwoerd. Cisca resides in Boston, MA, with her husband and son. She lectures and writes about her two favorite topics: mission and theology in art.