Chagall's humanely biblical view of the world

By Chris Herlinger
December 12, 2008

A New York City art exhibit is spotlighting the biblically-inspired art of Marc Chagall, a Russian exile whose work depicted both Jewish and Christian symbols but remained rooted in an earth-bound, humane view of the world and of religious life.

"Chagall was a fascinating figure who had a foot in both [Jewish and Christian] worlds," said Paul Tabor, director of exhibitions of the Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan, or the Mobia as it is known, the site of "Chagall's Bible: Mystical Storytelling", an exhibit which runs until 18 January 2009.

In a recent interview while walking through the exhibit, Tabor said the tribute to Chagall seeks not only to find common ground between the artist's biblically-themed work, but also to do some rehabilitating of reputation.

Chagall is perhaps most famous for his paintings and for stained glass creations in both Christian and Jewish places of worship, including St. Stephen's Cathedral in Mainz, Germany, and the synagogue of the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem. A Chagall stained glass window also stands at the United Nations.

Though praised by fellow modernist contemporaries like Pablo Picasso, Chagall has sometimes been slighted as a populariser, and referred to as the "Fiddler on the Roof of Modernism".

But to Tabor, the current exhibit shows Chagall using biblical images in a profound way to reflect on the sorrows and terrors of the mid-20th century.

A series of black and white prints, including the "Capture of Jerusalem", which graphically depicts the Exodus with a keen awareness of the horrors of Nazi Germany, were hidden in Paris during the Second World War while the artist was in exile in New York.

"Past, present and future blended together for Chagall," Tabor said.

Chagall was born in 1887 near Vitebsk in what is now Belarus and grew up with both the influences of Jewish family and communal life and also that of the surrounding Russian Orthodox community. He studied in the capitals of Russia and Germany, and eventually settled in Paris. Chagall returned to France from exile in the United States following the war. He died in 1985.

Before his death Chagall reflected on one of the great influences of his life, saying the Bible was what he called "the great universal book", and it had long held a place of pride for him as an artist.

"Since my childhood it has filled me with vision about the fate of the world and inspired me in my work," he said in 1979. "In moments of doubt, its highly poetic grandeur and wisdom have comforted me. For me it is like a second nature."

In his very personal way Chagall was something of an ecumenical, if not interfaith, painter, though Tabor emphasises the individuality of Chagall's vision.

"He had a profound sense of the theology of Christianity but used it for his own purposes," Tabor said.

Chagall was not afraid to depict the crucified Jesus, for example, but Tabor said Chagall's portrayal of Jesus is decidedly Jewish and earth-bound, as Jesus the Jew who suffers, not the crucified figure of Christian proclamation.

Both Christian and Jewish visitors have reacted positively to the Mobia exhibit, Tabor said. Given a long history of anti-Semitism, Jewish groups often remark on their discomfort with traditional Christian symbolism. But in Chagall's work, Tabor said, they "see a Jesus they recognise".

The gallery website can be found at:

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