By Jacob Patton and Madeline Jackson
Chinese artist He Qi’s painting Messiah is a unique and expressive depiction of the Christian messiah Jesus. Contrary to the pervasive rendering of Jesus, He does not represent Jesus as white. This artistic choice has significance for Native American liberation theology and Asian liberation theology. Further, where Messiah is displayed at Samford University, it elicits from its on-lookers thoughts of Jesus’ majesty in the midst of the mundane. This does well for He’s vision, as the work depicts Jesus as mighty, present, and worthy to be praised.
Displayed in Samford’s Harwell Goodwin Davis Library, Messiah by He Qi (b. 1950) stands out as eccentric and bright amidst the subdued colonial tones of Samford’s classical aesthetic. Known for his use of vibrant colors and his blending of Chinese and Western cultures, He depicts various biblical stories and themes in his paintings. He currently lives in California, serving as the artist-in-residence at Fuller Theological Seminary. Previously, He studied at Nanjing Normal University and Nanjing Art Institute in China, as well as at Germany’s Hamburg Art Institute (He, n.d.). Messiah is a typical representative of his colorful style. This painting, measuring 34.5” x 37”, hangs near the stairs on the library’s second floor. Messiah is a unique treasure to the Samford student body because its creation was spurred on by a suggestion from two Samford alumni in 2004. First appearing in Singapore on the cover of a program booklet for Handel’s Messiah, the painting was then sent to the United States, framed by Mountain Brook Baptist Church, and received by Samford in June of 2004. Today, He continues to sell reproductions of Messiah, though they differ slightly in color and lack certain details found in the original (namely, the nimbus over the centered Jesus is not cruciform, but simple). Though the market teems with reproductions of this work, the original painting serves as a reminder to the Samford community that Christ is not bound by Western ideals but transcends every race and culture.
Messiah—an Icon of the Liberating Christ
Defying racial phenotypes, the red, pink, orange, green, and blue hues of the Messiah’s skin reflect artistic trends of minority groups in the 1970s, particularly those who closely identify with liberation theology. In The Color of Christ: The Son of God and The Saga of Race in America, Edward Blum and Paul Harvey discuss prominent liberation theologians that contribute to the artistic representations of Christ. One of them is Vine Deloria. Deloria, who was heralded as a primary initiator for Native American liberation theology, but instead of being interested in Jesus’ skin tone, he was more concerned with “recapturing Indian tradition ” when depicting Christ (Blum and Harvey, 2004, 240). Similarly, He’s painting focuses not on the race of Christ, but rather, it captures Chinese culture and tradition with its incorporation of the upside-down Chinese symbol for ‘lucky’ and its subtle reference to a Chinese palace. Although this piece does not reflect Native American tradition or culture, it echoes Deloria’s sentiments of wanting to embrace a non-Western culture when depicting Christ in order to offer a depiction that extends beyond his historical whiteness and reaches a variety of people groups and traditions.
Relating more directly to Messiah, Asian liberation theology makes a prominent appearance on the theological front in the 1980s and 1990s and offers new perspectives for understanding Christ as transcendent amidst all cultures. Blum and Harvey describe Asian theologians in this time as looking “to understand Jesus in the context of their traditions, experiences, and encounters with white Christianity” (Blum and Harvey 2004, 240). For example, Asian theologian Jung Lee Young perceived Christ as being the embodiment of both light and darkness, both an insider and outsider (Blum and Harvey 2004, 240). Directly referencing the Chinese yin-yang symbol of harmonious opposites in this understanding of Christ, Young allows for his cultural lens to guide his embrace of the sacred instead of merely settling for a western Messiah with no connection to local culture. He’s incorporation of Chinese traditions inthis work directly echoes sentiments of Young and other Asian theologians as they aim to bring Chinese culture more explicitly into conversation with artistic representations of Christ. Though emerging twenty to thirty years prior to Messiah’s commissioning, the Asian liberation theology movement takes visual form when artists like He incorporate traditional symbols into their religious art.
Samford’s Interpretation of Messiah
As mentioned, Messiah is hung near the stairs one walks up to the generally more studious second floor of Samford’s library. The piece is fittingly not far from the section containing books delineating the history of missions in various tribes and nations. In their weekly routines, many students frequently walk by the painting. When students were asked their thoughts on the painting, it is likely that the academic placement of the piece influenced their thinking. We asked two students to comment separately on this painting, and their responses were remarkably similar. Both students noted the ambiguity of Jesus’ race in Messiah, but they concluded it looks most like an accurate representation of the historical Jesus’ race. They both also independently concluded that the three different images of Jesus symbolizes the Trinity: the adult Jesus praising God the Father, the baby Jesus being God the Son, and the lamb with the cross in the right corner representing God the Holy Spirit God. The colors used by He and the Chinese overtone were also considered by the interviewed students in a similar analytical way. Paramount, however, in both of their considerations of this painting was a sense of reverence for the Lord Jesus. They pointed out how the piece portrays Jesus as worshiped by angels with their instruments and humanity with the city street extending and opening towards the baby Jesus, the adult Jesus being in the center of both. (Interestingly, they both thought the street was a church aisle and that the buildings were pews). This elicits a deep sense of worship for Jesus from Messiah’s viewers, specifically a sense of worship for Jesus in one’s studies and work. Samford placing the artwhere it is enables the university to remind students of its motto, “For God, For Learning, Forever.”
Depiction of Christ in Messiah
This reverence and holiness of Jesus reflected on by the students is furthered by the Ying-Yang two natures of the God-man depicted in Messiah. This is shown most prominently by the glorified, resurrected Jesus in the center. Though he is clothed with heavenly light and a halo, he is shown with the nail wounds of the crucifixion in his hands and is looking at the viewer. Together these show that the divine has been lowered to our level. This is expressed further by the angels worshiping him. The angel with the harp is looking up to heaven where God dwells, and the angel with the lute is looking to earth where humanity dwells. The palace or temple, alluded to above, over this Jesus’ right shoulder can convey an eschatological message of a New Heaven and Earth being opened by Jesus. This gives even more meaning to the title He gave the work and can even be related to the light that the infant Jesus shines on the world below. Given the obvious focus on Jesus’ messiahship portraying his birth and resurrection, the classic emblem of the lamb with the cross is best understood as depicting the atonement achieved through the Christ.
Naturally, Messiah is inspired first and foremost by Scripture. Revelation 22:17 can be understood as the heart of the lesson the painting teaches, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (He, 2006). Revelation’s theme of coming to the Lord can be seen in Messiah as the resurrected bridegroom stands glorified in the center of the painting with a road leading from the manger to His feet. And again, behind the Lord stand the gates of heaven, implying that those who come to Him are granted entrance into the Kingdom, thereby satisfying their thirst with everlasting life by His power and His grace. Moreover, these images also point to important movements of George Fridrich Handel’s Messiah, at whose performance the image was first used. The oratorio recounts Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection then concludes with the text from Revelation 5:12, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” Thus, He’s Messiah depicts Jesus as the one who brings oneness with both God and humanity, with heaven and earth, and who ultimately is to be praised and revered for being such.
Artist: He Qi
Created: April 2004
Installed: June 2004
Location: Harwell Goodwin Davis Library, 800 Lakeshore Drive Birmingham, Alabama 35229
Sources for Further Reading:
Blum, Edward J., and Paul Harvey. The Color of Christ The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
Exhibition note. Unknown Author and Date, Located next to painting at in Harwell Goodwin Davis Library, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.
He Qi. About He Qi. [online] Welcome to He Qi’s New Gallery. Available at: https://www.heqiart.com/about-he-qi.html [Accessed 19 Feb. 2020].
He Qi. Look Toward the Heavens: The Art of He Qi. New Haven, Conn: OMSC Publications, 2006.
Jacob Patton ‘22 and Madeline Jackson ‘20 were students in the Craft of Religious Studies in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in spring 2020.
Published April 6, 2020.