4.34. Marc Chagall, etching ‘The Deliverance of Jerusalem’ (1956)

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) pictured the shofar in many drawings, etchings, paintings, stained-glass windows, mosaics, and tapestries. The best-known of his works with a shofar are the gobelin tapestries (1969) in the Knesset in Jerusalem. In the left one of the three tapestries, several shofarot are blown in front of a background with the city of Jerusalem, which is pictured as a vision in a sphere. This scene in the tapestry is very similar to that in the etching discussed in this chapter, La délivrance de Jérusalem (“The Deliverance of Jerusalem,” 1956), that shows an angel blowing the shofar in front of a similarly idealized picture of Jerusalem, contained in a sphere. Despite the similarity of the scenes, Chagall’s points of departure seem to be different. As the official site of the Israeli government states, “Chagall initially suggested that the theme of this tapestry would be the ‘Revival of the State of Israel,’ and the tapestry mixes motifs of two time periods: The era of King David, and the modern period of the State of Israel.” *www.knesset.gov.il, “Artwork in the Knesset.” In the tapestry, the Past of the Bible story is altered by the Present of the State of Israel. In the etching, however, the Present is directed by the Past, as this work was meant to illustrate a chapter from the Bible.

 

Chagall

Fig. 7. Marc Chagall, The Deliverance of Jerusalem. Etching. 31,5 x 22,1 cm. Reproduced by permission of Dover Publications, Inc.

The Deliverance of Jerusalem is part of a series of 105 etchings, that were created over a long period of time and had an eventful history. In 1930, the Parisian art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard commissioned Chagall to illustrate the Hebrew Bible with a series of etchings. Chagall traveled to Palestine to see biblical landscapes and to Amsterdam in order to study Rembrandt’s biblical paintings. After his daughter Ida had selected 105 texts from the Bible, Chagall began working on the commission. The death of Vollard and the outbreak of World War II interrupted his work; Chagall brought the sketches and completed etchings to a place of security and fled to the United States. Tériade published the 105 etchings in two volumes in 1956.

No. 95, The Deliverance of Jerusalem, belongs to a series of five etchings on the vision of the new Jerusalem from Isa. 49-66, consisting of No. 94, God Will have Mercy on the People of Jacob; No. 95, The Deliverance of Jerusalem; No. 96, Promise to Jerusalem; No. 98, Salvation for Jerusalem; and No. 101, Capture of Jerusalem.

Chapters 49-66 of Isaiah deal with the return from Babylonian exile, which is compared by the prophet to the exodus from Egypt. Chapters 49-55 picture the rehabilitation of Jerusalem and Mount Zion and chapters 56-66 a Jerusalem which has again become God’s habitation. Chagall’s No. 95, The Deliverance of Jerusalem is the illustration to Isa. 52:1-2:

1 Awake, awake, O Zion!
Clothe yourself in splendor;
Put on your robes of majesty,
Jerusalem, holy city!
For the uncircumcised and the unclean
Shall never enter you again.
2 Arise, shake off the dust,
Sit [on your throne], Jerusalem!
O captive one, Fair Zion!

Chagall pictures Jerusalem as the center of the four quarters of the world, which are represented by the four circles in the corners of the etching and—if the circles are interpreted as spheres—as the center of the cosmos. He visualizes God’s authoritative discourse from Isa. 52:1-2 by picturing an angel, blowing a shofar, whose curved bell is directed at the group of liberators, who in their turn point to the holy city. Isaiah compares the waiting city with a bride and uses sexual allusions, as in 52:1: “For the uncircumcised and the unclean / Shall never enter you again.” Sexual allusions are also present in Chagall’s etching, for example in the exposed body of the angel and the symbols of the upward-directed shofar and the wing, penetrating the circle. The angel’s tallith and tefillin stress not only the holy mission of the deliverance of Jerusalem, but also the exclusively Jewish claim on the city, visualizing the above-quoted v. Isa. 52:1.

In contrast to Shahn’s Third Allegory, *Chapter 4.33 which is based on a right-angled grid, The Deliverance of Jerusalem is completely composed of curved elements, which create a similar impression of divine order and unity. Chagall usually pictures the shofar in a more or less abstracted form, as a quarter of a circle, with a perfect conical bore, without the torsion about the longitudinal axis and with a smooth, non-ribbed surface and bell. *Cf. the shofar in Tribe of Joseph from his stained glass windows in the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem (1962). Similar shofarot are found in the color woodcut Grosse Auferstehung (“Great Resurrection,” 1911) by Wassily Kandinsky and the lithograph Der neue Tag (“The New Day,” 1932) by Ernst Barlach. The reason to remodel the shofar might be the need to refresh and modernize the iconography of the instrument. The central curved element in the etching is a sphere containing the city of Jerusalem, whose center is the mountain on which the second Temple will be built after the destruction of the first by the Babylonians. Jerusalem resembles a vision of the future in a crystal ball, a jewel set in a round frame with precious stones, or a shining lamp supported by the shofar and the wings and legs of the angel. Seen through modern eyes, Chagall’s spherical image of Jerusalem reveals the characteristic perspective distortion of a fisheye lens, projecting a wide, round panorama. The angel’s nudity suggests deliverance, whereas his upside-down position suggests not only the turnover of the city, but also the ʿaliyyah or “ascent” to the holy city, to which the liberators are almost literally blown. Both inside and outside the sphere there are many circle segments in the form of the quarters of the world or the heavenly bodies surrounding the sphere: the clouds in the sky; the domed roofs of the houses in Jerusalem; the palm branches; the men’s heads with the hair; and the angel’s upper body and left arm with its extension, the shofar. The angel’s shofar, wing, and foot are all directed to Jerusalem and have their own meanings: the shofar calls to action, the wing symbolizes the sacred character of the mission, while the foot symbolizes the action itself and the return of the Jews into the city. The angel’s shofar, announcing the deliverance, and the men, ready to realize this, are united in the picture by the word Yerushalayim, which visualizes both the authoritative discourse of the angel’s shofar blast and the internally persuasive discourse of the men’s shouts.

Both Uriel Birnbaum’s drawing A Great Shofar Sounds *Chapter 4.20 and Marc Chagall’s etching The Deliverance of Jerusalem were inspired by dramatic visions from Isaiah: Isa. 6 about the judgment and Isa. 52 about the deliverance respectively. However, there is a great difference between Birnbaum’s and Chagall’s mythical Jerusalem. Whereas Birnbaum suggests a mystical light, centered on the holy mountain, Chagall’s city bathes in glorious sunlight. This nonsensuality versus sensuality is apparent in the black caftan covering all of Birnbaum’s shofar blower’s body versus the nudity and Mediterranean skin tone of Chagall’s angel. It is similarly apparent in nature as the contrast between Birnbaum’s terebinth and oak, the remnants of the destruction in Isa. 6:13, and Chagall’s two palms, symbols of victory, joy and flowering, as in Ps. 92:13-14: “The righteous bloom like a date-palm; . . . 14 planted in the house of the LORD, / they flourish in the courts of our God.” Whereas Birnbaum’s drawing from 1935 reflects the prewar situation in the diaspora with the threat of persecution, Chagall’s etching from 1956 reflects postwar optimism and the building of the Jewish state.

In an attempt to evaluate Chagall’s corpus of Bible etchings, the literary historian Benjamin Harshav stated that “The Bible brought together the basic antinomies of Chagall’s painting and consciousness: it merged the Jewish and the universal; it bridged the gap between the learned and the popular; it combined the presentation of nameable individuals . . . with spiritual abstractions . . .” *Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times 807. In The Deliverance of Jerusalem, the Jewish element in the form of the deliverance of the sacred city after Babylonian exile, described by the “named individual” Isaiah, can be linked to general deliverance from oppression, either as a religious or a political movement. Furthermore, the addressee of Chagall’s illustrations is both a scholarly readership and a wider audience, young or old; it is a well-known fact that he was not satisfied with having his work only in museums. *Ibid. 811. According to Harshav, to Chagall the Bible was

both a historical mythology and the imaginary world of his childhood; it conflated the earliest stories a Jewish child heard with impressions of modern Israel. It was a concrete book to be illustrated in the present, and the vision of a naive, utopian, prophetic future for Israel (in Jerusalem) and for all humanity (in Nice)—all at the same time. *Marc Chagall and His Times 808. “Nice”: Chagall’s residence in France.

While the biblical and the personal Past directed the Present of Chagall’s Bible etchings project, the Past and the Present even directed his vision of the Future.
 

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