Marc Chagall and the Bible

Glencairn Museum News | Number 4, 2015

 

Marc Chagall and the Bible

 

Marc Chagall and the Bible will be on view at Glencairn Museum through Sunday, October 4, 2015. Marc Chagall (1887–1985) has been called the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century, and one of the foremost visual interpreters of the Bible. He was born in Vitebsk, Belarus, into a traditional Hasidic Jewish family. According to Chagall, “Since my early youth I have been fascinated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and it seems to me still that it is the greatest source of poetry of all time. Since then I have sought this reflection in life and in art. The Bible is like an echo of nature and this secret I have tried to transmit.”

The works of art in this exhibition are on loan from Sandra and Bob Bowden. Sandra, a collector of religious art, is also an artist herself. Many of the artists whose works she collects—including Georges Rouault, Otto Dix, Sadao Watanabe, and Rudolph Bostic—have attempted to translate biblical themes into visual images. Sandra reflects, “Since I had studied Hebrew and the Old Testament it seems natural that I would be interested in the work of Marc Chagall. He sees the biblical narrative from a totally new perspective . . . through the eyes of a Russian Jew and with deep spiritual insight. His etchings are so intricate and his color lithographs gleam with rich color. This collection has been gathered over the last twenty years and will probably continue into the future. It is my hope that this show will bring delight to all who see it, but also provide a way for Jews and Christians to engage in a dialogue.”

Chagall’s La Bible (1932–39, 1952–56) was an enormous project that spanned more than two decades. The exhibition at Glencairn includes eight of the 105 etchings from this series. The 1956 and 1960 suites of Chagall’s colorful Bible lithographs, among his most beloved works, were printed by Fernand Mourlot and published in Paris by Tériade for special editions of Verve magazine. Thirty-two lithographs from Verve are included in the exhibition. A Chagall self portrait and a 1959 lithograph (Mystical Crucifixion) are also featured in Marc Chagall and the Bible. A selection of lithographs and etchings in the exhibition follows below.

 

Figure 1: Mystical Crucifixion. Each element in this lithograph contains personal or symbolic meaning for Chagall: a Russian village for the earthly home; a candlestick for the Hebrew Bible, or Judaism; a clock for time, past or present; Madonna and Child for Mary and Jesus, or the relationship of mother and child; a red ox for sacrifice; the Crucifixion for Christ. A prayer shawl covers the loins of Jesus to remind us, lest we forget, that Christ was a Jew. That Chagall, himself a Jew, would have used the Crucifixion in many of his works suggests that he must have understood the event as one of the most poignant symbols of suffering in all of history. Chagall believed the image of the Crucifixion to be denominationally unspecific.

 
 

Figure 2: Creation. Chagall opens his 1960 Bible Suite with a stunning and imaginative depiction of creation. The ethereal blues and the floating images of birds, animals, and angels swirl around a central sun/moon image. Set at an angle to each other, Eve seems to emerge from Adam’s side, recalling the biblical story of the creation of Eve from the rib of Adam. All elements combine to portray a celebratory view of God’s creation.

 
 

Figure 3: Moses. Chagall has chosen to depict Moses surrounded in bright red, while clutching the two Tablets of the Law that God has given him. Perhaps he is hearing the words, “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine” (Exodus 19:5).

 
 

Figure 4: Joshua and the Rock of Shechem. “On that day at Shechem, Joshua made a covenant for the people and he made a fixed rule for them. Joshua recorded all this in a book of divine instruction. He took a great stone and set it up at the foot of the oak in the sacred precinct of the Lord; and Joshua said to all the people, ‘See, this very stone shall be a witness against us, for it heard all the words that the Lord spoke to us; it shall be a witness against you, lest you break faith with your God’” (Joshua 24:25-27). Here the prophet holds the book in which he has recorded divine instruction. The stone marker is carved with an anachronistic Star of David, symbolizing for Chagall the Israelites’ covenant with God.

 
 

Figure 5: David with His Harp. “Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit leave him” (I Samuel 16:23). Chagall chose vibrant tones of red, orange, and violet to portray David playing the harp. He appears intently listening to the quieting music that flows from the instrument.

 
 

Figure 6: Solomon. “Zadok the priest then took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, ‘Long live King Solomon!’” (I Kings 1:39). This joyous depiction of King Solomon dancing and celebrating as he raises his hands in praise reminds us of how much Chagall esteemed this leader of Israel. Surrounding Solomon are various symbols of Jewish life: a sheep for sacrifice, the Tablets of the Law, and the Menorah.

 
 

Figure 7: Promise to Jerusalem. God’s covenant with Israel is reiterated through three symbolic representations: the angel unfurling his drapery to reveal his face; the rainbow and angel which appeared to Noah; and the disk inscribed with God’s name present at Creation. As one of the thirty-nine etchings that were printed from 1952 to 1956, the symbolism of the text takes on an additional meaning for Chagall with the rebirth of the Jewish people after the Holocaust and the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel.

 
 

Figure 8: The Sacrifice of Abraham. Chagall’s expression of man’s faith in God reaches a climax in this dramatic scene. Abraham gently holds Isaac’s leg with one hand and lifts the knife with the other. The sudden descent of the angel arrests his movement and Abraham’s submissive eyes are locked onto God’s messenger. The small white ram that will replace Isaac as the offering emerges from the dense thicket on the left. In describing his childhood nightmares, Chagall alludes to the frightening imagery of this sacrifice.

 

 

Marc Chagall and the Bible will be on view at Glencairn Museum through Sunday, October 4, 2015. More information is here.

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.