Marc Chagall and the Bible

By Sandra Bowden


Marc Chagall (1877–1895) is perhaps the foremost visual interpreter of the Bible in the twentieth century.  With wit and joy, he has given us marvelous depictions of the stories we know so well from the Old Testament. His art is filled with his own reoccurring symbols drawn from visual memory and imagination. Chagall wrote that “Our whole inner world is a reality, perhaps more real than the apparent world.” Chagall’s vision of the Old Testament combines his Jewish heritage and modern art in rich images of multiple meanings. He said that he did not see the Bible, but he dreamed it, even as a child.


As a Russian-born Jew his deep faith displayed itself frequently throughout his career. Themes from the Old Testament dominated his work. Chagall said, “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 its reflection in life and in art. The Bible is like a resonance of nature, and that secret is what I have tried to transmit.”


The Russian village life of his youth was a source of nourishment for his art and was a frequent subject in his painting. A number of interesting objects reoccur in his work: the cow represents life par excellence; the tree also suggests life; a rooster implies fertility; the herring or flying fish commemorates his father’s profession; the clock reminds us of time; the two candlesticks refer to the Sabbath; the goat is a symbol of atonement; and angels substitute for an image of God.


His vast output over a long and productive career included hundreds of paintings, etchings and lithographs, book illustrations, murals, costume and stage sets, as well as many of the twentieth century’s most beautiful stained glass windows for churches, synagogues and secular institutions.


Early Life and Training

Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk in what is now Belarus, into a Hasidic family of moderate means. He was the oldest of nine children and first studied at a local heder or Hasidic religious school before transferring to a secular Russian school.  There he discovered his artistic talents and with his mother’s support in 1907 he went to St. Petersburg to study art with the noted Russian painter and stage and costume designer, Leon Bakst. It was there under the influence of contemporary art that his distinctive, almost child-like visual vocabulary began to emerge.


In 1910 he went to Paris to absorb the artistic life of a new century. He spent long hours in the Louvre and came into contact with the works of the Cubists, Surrealists and Fauves. There he painted some of his most loved paintings of his Jewish shtetl or village fusing memory, imagination, fantasy, religion, and nostalgia into his own joyous style that would win him renown. He was influenced by the contemporary art of Paris, but he charted his own course becoming a school of one. He did not fit neatly into any of the various movements of the time.


The two World Wars had a dramatic impact on Chagall. During World War I he returned to Russia and was married to his beloved Bella, but his work was ‘too modern’ for the Bolshevik authorities, so in 1922 he settled again in France, living there until he had to flee during World War II to the United States. Chagall could not believe the Nazi forces would take him, but he was finally persuaded that he needed to leave his beloved France. His escape was orchestrated with the help of the Museum of Modern Art and the United States government.


During Chagall’s time in the United States, his horror at the Nazi cruelty to his Jewish people manifested itself in works by depicting martyrs and refugees. Some of his most powerful crucifixion images date from this period. Sadly, Bella, the love of his life, became ill and died while they were vacationing in upstate New York. Chagall was stunned and the loss impacted his work for the rest of his life.


Bible Etchings

In 1930 while Chagall was still in Paris he met Ambrose Vollard who published many of the most important artist’s books of the twentieth century.  Vollard asked Chagall to create a series of etchings from the Bible, and he immediately started on the project by taking a trip to Palestine. He said he just wanted to ”touch the earth.” Chagall also wrote about starting the series:  “I went back to the great universal book, the Bible. Since my childhood, it has filled me with vision about the fate of the world and inspired me in my work .... I see the events of life and works of art through the wisdom of the Bible. Since in my inner life the spirit and world of the Bible occupy a large place. I have tried to express it.”


With the death of Vollard from a tragic car accident in 1939 and Chagall being forced to leave France to escape the Gestapo in 1941, publication of the etchings was put on hold. Augmented by the pieces that Chagall had added between 1952 and 1956, the set was finally published in 1956 by the Swiss publisher Antoine Tériade with 105 images, ten of which are in this exhibition.


Many of the images in this suite are reminiscent of men and women of the shtetl of Vitebsk. Dressed in a heavy Hasidic looking coat and hat, Abraham, who is about to take the life of Isaac, is a good example of this. Angels appear in many of Chagall’s etchings. The angel in Abraham and Isaac seems celestial and appears from above, while the angel wrestling with Jacob has a powerful, almost earthly presence. The story of David, Saul and Solomon surfaces in many of the etchings. Chagall loved the stories of the Old Testament and this suite attests to his deep understanding and imaginative interpretation of these episodes.


Lithographs from VERVE

In 1956 to celebrate the publication of The Bible etchings, Antoine Tériade also commissioned a series of biblical themed lithographs to be published in the deluxe art review Verve. The result was sixteen of the most intense color lithographs Chagall ever created. Chagall said, “Whenever I bent over the lithography stone…it was as though I was touching a talisman. It seemed as though I could pour all my sadness and joys into it”. Each lithograph is a luminous print with intense color, powerful drawing and great insight into the biblical characters. Twelve of these prints had black-and-white lithographs on the reverse side (one of which is in this show). In 1956 after the success of the portfolio, Tériade commissioned another set of 24 lithographs illuminating the Bible.


Several themes emerge in these suites. Four prints relate to Moses receiving the Law. Depictions of angels dominate many of the images. David and Bathsheba and David and the Harp are two intriguing works that stand out in the 1956 suite. Chagall interestingly depicts many women and their role in the Hebrew Bible, but Sarah emerges as one of his favorites.


In the 1960 series, Chagall dedicates several pieces to Adam and Eve, their creation and expulsion from the Garden. He also adds a beautiful blue piece entitled Creation where Adam and Eve look to the heavens while birds, fish, and angels form a vortex around the sun. Chagall included several of the prophets and kings of Israel, all coming together to walk us though his beloved Hebrew Bible.


Chagall and Crucifixions

It is most remarkable that Chagall, who was Jewish, would have used the Crucifixion in so much of his art. Over one hundred of his works include the Crucifixion as a reference or the main subject. Mystical Crucifixion and Christ in the Clock, two colored lithographs in this exhibition, demonstrate his fascination with the topic. Chagall wrote: “For me, Christ is a great poet, the teaching of whose poetry has been forgotten by

the modern world.”


* All quotes are from Chagall by Chagall, 1982, Harry N Abrams, NY


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