On the road

We look at an early Rembrandt painting, painted in the Netherlands in 1627, next to a painting on marble from the Far East, slightly older according to its iconography. Both can be seen as depicting man on his spiritual path.

On the road

What do we see?

The Rembrandt painting is called ‘The Flight into Egypt’. A donkey is carrying a woman with a baby and is being led by a barefooted man. The man’s clothes and his skin have the colours of the earth in the light falling on the group of travellers. The light comes from a source we can only imagine: an open door, a street lamp or a fire at the edge of the road. Or it is the Light, which accompanies this group on the right.

Flight to Egypt

The light draws their shadows on the sand. The shadows of a thorny plant and of the group, together with the dark blue uneven darkness, exude a certain menace. The woman is dressed in bright blue. Her headscarf and a piece of luggage form small contrasts in earth tones. The man is carrying a grey-blue waist bag. Man and woman together form a yin-yang symbol: a blue detail in a plane of earth tones, a brownish yellow detail in a sea of light blue.  Next to the large spot of light, there is the small bright light of the aura around the child’s head.

Child on ox

The marble painting can be seen as the sixth in a series of ten pictures from Zen Buddhism, which tell about taming and riding the bull – sometimes also ox or buffalo. Traditionally number 6 is entitled: riding the bull on the way home. So this one too pictures a scene on the road. We see a bull with a child on its back steering a kite on a rope, high up in the air. There is a calm dynamic in the print. The bull is carrying the human who keeps a connection with above.

What is the story?

Western tradition: the flight to Egypt is undertaken after Mary’s child is born in a stable. Joseph was there along with an ox and a donkey. Joseph is warned in a dream by an angel to flee with the child and his mother to Egypt, because of the threat from the ruling king Herod.

The tradition of the East: a bull must be captured and tamed by its keeper, its shepherd. This happens in the earlier images of the Buddhist series of prints. Later in the series, both the bull and the shepherd will, one after the other, dissolve without a trace into the great circle of the All.

What can we think on seeing these pictures?

Let’s interpret each work of art as a depiction of man at a particular stage on the path. There is a human figure or figures and there is an animal that walks the earth and carries a human being.

In Rembrandt’s case, there are three human figures. There is the woman Mary in the colour of heaven. There is the man Joseph in the colours of the earth. And there is the child Jesus. We see the female, receiving aspect of the soul and the male, acting out. Joseph was previously asleep, not active, when he was warned in a dream. Mary received her announcement of pregnancy and birth from an angel while she was awake. The child is from the Holy Spirit.

The donkey is the animal in man, that is: the body and a part of the soul that is close to the body. The donkey is led by the man, who also walks on the earth.

The man determines the direction in which they all go, in a positive response to the warning he received.

The child, above the world, is carried by the woman sitting on the donkey. The child has a splendid halo. The child is not of this world. It is completely new and connects the group with that which is above, with heaven.

The soul is represented in its receiving face Mary, in its manifesting face Joseph and in that in the soul which is completely new and which is still carried by the man/woman and by the donkey. The body, the man who acts, the woman who rests and carries the child. She is the virgin part of the soul in which the Holy Spirit conceived the child.

In the Oriental print a human figure – possibly a child – is carried by the bull. The child is flying a kite. The kite and the rope make the connection with heaven. In the more classical series of prints, the keeper plays the flute, sitting on the back of the bull. The tones of his flute ascend into the sky. There too: body, soul and a connection with that which is above.

What can we learn to do from these images?

There is a whole story behind the flight to Egypt: of kings or magicians, of King Herod who wants to kill the child, the new-born messiah who is a threat to power, of the warning angel in Joseph’s dream and the journey to Egypt. The young newborn in our hearts is brought to safety by the pure force of the soul of Mary and the willing action of Joseph, who leads the donkey. Our soul is invited to protect what is new in it, using and guiding the body and its own more instinctive part.

Many newborns will die. They are not the absolutely new Jesus. They only have in common with Jesus the time and place of being born. The place of being born is our heart. They, those other newborns, could be all kinds of new feelings, heart ideas that arise in us at the time of Jesus’ birth. Each of those children is a fantastic potential that must not be, for the sake of preserving the power of the old king who is called I.

The poem accompanying the sixth record of ‘Taming of the Bull’, in its classic version with the flute player, ends:

I make the endless rhythm go out. Whoever hears this song will join me.

Riding the bull, on the way home.

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Date: October 15, 2021
Author: Eric Op 't Eynde (Belgium)
Photo: Ben Frieden on Pixabay

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