Chagall and the Bible Exhibit Guide
Sacrifice of Abraham
Etching #10 from the Bible Suite
12 ½ x 8 ½
“They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Then an angel of the LORD called him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me. “ When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by his horns, So Abraham went and too the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, whence the present saying, “on the mount of the LORD there is vision.” Genesis 22:9–14
Chagall’s expression of man’s faith in God reaches a climax in this dramatic scene, Young Isaac is bound and horizontally posed across the altar, his head hanging downward to accentuate his vulnerability. 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
Submissive eyes are locked into God’s messenger. The small white ram which will replace Isaac as the offering emerges from the dense thicket on the left. The subtlety of Chagall’s composition can be seen in the way he has adjusted the angle of the knife to the kindling on the altar and echoed the angle created by Abraham’s arm and knife in the angel’s parted wings above. In describing his childhood nightmares, Chagall alludes to the frightening imagery of this sacrifice.
Jacob Wrestles with the Angel
Etching #16 from the Bible Suite
11 5/8 x 9 1/4
After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name” he replied, “Jacob.” Genesis 32:24-28
Chagall has portrayed an older, more massive Jacob than in the three prior plates. As in Rembrandt’s painting of the same subject, Chagall has chosen to depict the movement of the struggle when the Angel has wrenched Jacob’s hip at the socket by the pressure of his knee. There is a baroque dynamism in the fleshy, overlapping limbs and the emphatic diagonal movement of the weighted adversaries. Chagall indicates the dawn by contrasting the diagonally striated sky on the left with the lighter, strippled sky on the right.
Joshua and the Rock of Schechem
Etching # 51 from the Bible Suite
11 5/8 x 9 1/8
On that day at Schechem, 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
Joshua’s body is dematerialized by light, signifying his impending death. The prophet holds the book in which he has recorded divine instruction. The stone marker is carved with an anacronistic star of David, symbolizing for Chagall the Israelites’ covenant with God. Resembling a gravestone, this marker recalls Chagall’s visits to the graves of his grandparents and mother, which he describes in words and depicts in the etching Beside My Mother’s Tombstone in My Life.
Samson and Delilah
Then she said to him, “How can you say you love me, when you don’t confide in me? This makes three times that you’ve deceived me and haven’t told me what makes you so strong.” Finally, after she had nagged him and pressed him constantly, he was wearied to death and he confided everything to her. He said to her, “No razor has ever touched my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God since I was in my mother’s womb. Judges 16:15-17
Baroque lines animate Delilah’s voluptuousness and Samson’s sensual relaxation. Samson’s shorn locks seem to flame in Delilah’s upraised arm. Four Philistine voyeurs peer around the curtains at Samson’s defeat as a consequence of his physical excesses.
Anointing of Saul
Etching #60 from the Bible Suite
12 3/8 x 9 ¼
They then descended from the shrine to the town, and (Samuel) talked with Saul on the roof. Samuel took a flask of oil and poured some on Saul’s head and kissed him, and said, “The LORD herewith anoints you ruler over His own people.” I Samuel 9:25, 10:1
Chagall depicts the young Saul as described in the Bible—handsome and a head taller than any of the people. As Samuel anoints Saul, he also places the latter’s hand against his heart, foretelling that when Saul will leave Samuel, God will give the young ruler a new heart.
Solomon on His Throne
Etching # 81 from the Bible Suite
12 3/8 x 9 ¼
The king also made a large throne of ivory, and he overlaid it with refined gold. Six steps led up to the throne, and the throne had a back with a rounded top, and arms on either side of the seat. Two lions stood beside the arms, and twelve lions stood on the six steps, six on either side. No such throne was ever made for any other kingdom. I Kings 10:18-20
Chagall depicts Solomon on his throne with a Byzantine splendor, inflected by his familiarity with Russians icons. While Solomon’s wisdom is extolled, here Chagall celebrates the riches and glory that God has promised him.
Promise to Jerusalem
Etching #96 from the Bible Suite
12 ½ x 8 ½
The Lord has called you back
As a wife forlorn and forsaken.
Can one cast off the wife of his youth?
--said your god.
for a little while I forsook you,
But with vast love I will bring you back.
In the slight anger, for a moment,
I hid My face from you:
But with kindness everlasting
I will take you back in love
--said the Lord your redeemer.
for this to Me is like the waters of Noah:
as I swore that the waters of Noah
Nevermore would flood the earth,
So I will swear that i will not
Be angry with you or rebuke you.
for the mountains may mover
And the hills be shaken,
but my loyalty shall never move from you,
Nor My covenant of friendship be shaken
--said the Lord, who takes you back in love.
God’s covenant with Israel is reiterated through three symbolic representations: the angel unfurling his Baroque drapery to reveal his face; the rainbow and angel which appeared to Noah; and the disk inscribed with God’s name present at Creation. In this etching, Chagall has chosen an unlikely text for illustration which is unknown in other biblical cycles. As one of the thirty-nine etchings which were printed from 1952-56, 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.
Jeremiah in the Pit
Etching #102 from the Bible Suite
13 x 10 ¼
Then the officials said to the king, “Let the man be put to death, for he disheartens the soldiers, and all the people who are left in this city, by seeking such things to them. That man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm!: King Zedekiah replied, “he is in your hands; the king cannot oppose you in anything!” So they took Jeremiah and put him down in the pit of Malchaia, the kings’s son, which was in the prison compound; they let Jeremiah down by ropes. There was no water in the pit, only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud. Jeremiah 38:4-6
In the blackened depths of the pit, a diagonal shaft of brilliant light illuminates the stoic prophet. God’s presence is indicated by the angel lurking in the shadows, whose outstretched hand becomes transparent in the light.
Song of the Bow
Etching # 102 from the Bible Suite
13 x 10 ¼
Mountains of Gilboa—
May you have neither dew nor rain,
May no showers fall on your terraced fields.
For there the shield of the mighty was despised,
The shield of Saul—
No longer rubbed with oil.
From the blood of the slain,
From the flesh of the mighty,
The bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
The sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
Saul and Jonathan
In life they were loved and admired,
And in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
They were stronger than lions.
“Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul
Who clothed you in scarlet and finery
Who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
“How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
You were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
More wonderful than that of women.
How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished!
11 Samuel 1:21-27
David the shepherd, musician and warrior is now depicted as the poet, mourning the loss of Jonathan and Saul with his dirge. Chagall poses the crowned David with lyre against the clear, sunlit sky. David now appears as a lean, soulful personage.