Marc Chagall’s relationship to the Apocalypse

29 December 2019 | Apocalypse in discussion, Blog, News | 0 comments

Kees Zoeteman

I accidentally walked into the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in December 2019. There was an exhibition entitled ‘Chagall, Picasso, Mondrian and others, Migrant Artists in Paris, Exhibition – 21 Sep 2019 until 2 Feb 2020’. And to my surprise I came across two paintings by Marc Chagall (1887-1985) that I suspected had an apocalyptic background. But was that really possible? Chagall was, after all, a Chassidic Jew from Russia who, I expected, wouldn’t have much interest in the last book of the New Testament from the Bible. The first painting that struck me was entitled La femme enceinte/Maternité and dated from 1913. It was from the years after he left his native village of Vitebsk in Belarus and worked in Paris for the first time.

Marc Chagall, La femme enceinte/Maternité,1913; seen at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, December 2019

Because the painting depicted a boy in the belly of a pregnant woman, it immediately reminded me of the image from the Apocalypse of the pregnant woman clothed with the Sun and the Moon under her feet, who gave birth to a boy. Not all the ingredients of the Apocalypse image were present, and those that were, had a different location. There was a sickle of the moon, but positioned to the left of the woman’s head instead of under her feet. There was a red sun, but here just above the horizon, to the right of the woman. And at the top left of the image two pyramids seemed to be depicted. A possible reference to the flight to Egypt of Joseph and Mary with their child. Furthermore, it shows symbols also used by Chagall in his later paintings, such as buildings from his village Vitebsk and a horse and a goat; and two male figures that could depict himself. All were references to his nostalgia for the world of his native village and origin, but without an explicit reference to the Apocalypse. Yet the painting does not have a small-scale atmosphere. Because of the added symbols above the horizon and because of the pregnant woman towering far above the horizon, it has a cosmic charge, just like the Apocalypse. There is no red dragon depicted, but the woman is surrounded by a blood red colour, as if the dragon has yet to manifest itself but is already palpable.

In the next painting, La Madonna au traîneau, which dates from 1947 and was also shown in Amsterdam, there is much less doubt as to whether there is a connection with the Apocalypse.

Marc Chagall, La Madonna au traîneau, 1947; seen at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, December 2019

The woman is now called Madonna, and holds the born child firmly. The child has a golden halo, it’s the Jesus child. However, the woman is not standing upright but is lying on the ground, while the upper body seems to be absorbed in an upward movement. The black animal with a red head shields the old world of his native village. He himself sits on the sled between the two worlds. The dragon, depicted in the black horse with the red head, has taken the ripping lead in his life. The only partner in this world is the crowned rooster, who also stands for the bird, the wings, which, like the apocalyptic noble lady in the desert, allows to flee the red dragon.

With this encouraging interpretation of Chagall’s relationship to the Apocalypse, I looked further for more concrete examples and found these, although Chagall gives the role of Jesus Christ a different meaning than the Apocalypse does. Like several other Jewish artists in the USA, such as Mark Rothko and Max Weber, Jesus is presented by Chagall as a representative of the Jewish people and his crucifixion is a symbol of what was done to the Jewish people during the Holocaust in World War II. A clear example of this is the gouache entitled Apocalypse en Lilas: Capriccio of 1945/47.

Marc Chagall, Apocalypse en Lilas: Capriccio, 1945/47, gouache, pencil and Indian ink on paper; Ben Uri, THE LONDON JEWISH MUSEUM OF ART.

The name Apocalypse is explicitly linked to this gouache. It dates from the same period as the aforementioned painting La Madonna au traîneau, i.e. the years when the Holocaust became visible and immediately following the death of his wife Bella. In 1944 his muse and wife Bella Rosenfeld (1895-1944) suddenly died of a viral infection, after which she appears as a ghost in his paintings for years, until Chagall returns to France in 1948 with a new love, Virginia Haggard McNeil. But in both works the spirit of Bella is still prominent. We can recognize Bella in the Madonna who firmly holds her child, the hopeful part of Chagall himself, while her spirit, portrayed in the long dark hair, floats to the other side, away from this world. And we see the same, but now with Chagall as acting person, in Apocalypse and Lilas, in his embrace of Bella and the Torah scroll, desperately attempting to keep them, and save what is holy to him from the Nazi destruction. The people are slaughtered, time ceases to exist, the dragon has seized the power. We have ended up in the underworld, in hell. All that remains is mourning. And powerless rage. But hopeful in this image is the crucified Jesus, who has been humiliated but is not dead and looks with a watchful eye at the Nazi dragon and carries on his head the Teffillien, the holy word of God in the black box.

In this way the Holocaust and his own fate after the World War II, which he witnessed for the most part from the USA, is still experienced by him as an inner digestive fire, a fire that takes on ever-increasing proportions in later years. An expression of this can be found in one of his last paintings: Le cheval roux from 1967. He makes it when he is 82 years old. 

Marc Chagall, Le cheval roux, 1967,

It expresses a maddening sorrow at the suffering of his people as a result of the destruction brought about by the red horse, the horse depicting war in the Apocalypse, after the opening of the second seal. There is no hope here, only fire and blood. At the far right of the top of the picture is the observer, is he himself, as the magnified image shows. The image of the crucified Christ is missing, the one who suffers and represents the hope of the resurrection. Is there a resurrection of the Christ in ourselves?

A precursor of this destructive red horse of Nazism could already be seen in a painting he had struggled with for a long time before and which he had begun in 1923, after he and his wife Bella came to France after the revolution in Russia. He dragged La chute de l’angle with him for almost 25 years, also to America, to finish it when he returned to France in 1947. It is the reflection of 25 years of Stalin-ism and Nazism. 

Marc Chagall, La chute de l’angle, 1923-1947, Kunstmuseum Basel,

In this canvas, the fallen angel is the power that would chase away all the festivities of his native village, and the Jewish customs there. The spirit that began to work after the Russian Communist Revolution and later ignited German National Socialism and led to the firestorm that extinguished all spiritual life in the Holocaust. After Archangel Michael threw Satan on Earth in the nineteenth century (see also text fragments 34 and 35), the evil force is observed by Chagall in the fate of his people in the twentieth century.

In his last work dedicated to the Apocalypse, Vision d’Apocalypse, a watercoloured etching on woven paper from 1967, there are some new elements to be discovered, although the whole makes a very gloomy impression in terms of colour.  Only black and white tones remain in the landscape.

Marc Chagall, Vision d’Apocalypse, 1967, etching with watercolour, nr 1 of 35,

Again the crucified Jesus is depicted as the central figure. On the left we see a group of people with his village of birth behind them, a permanent symbol in his works, with an indication that may mean that the houses are going up in flames. On the right, however, we see another group of people in front of houses that are decaying, but now flying up a man and a woman with child, holy writings in their arms, as in Apocalypse en Lilas. When we see the left descending movement continuing in the right ascending movement, there is a saving and hope, a progression. At the bottom left the Hanukkah light is burning with a priest singing and at the bottom right we see the Madonna with child as hopeful signs. On the cross sits a bird, possibly the common rooster, as a victory sign of the day over the night. And on Jesus’ head we see a band of stars. The stars, that the Apocalypse places around the head of the noble lady who represents the human soul, are placed by Chagall here on the head of the crucified Jesus as a sign of the resurrected soul of mankind. In Apocalypse en Lilas we saw on this spot the Teffilien, the black leather box containing a prayer text. And then in the center of the picture we see the fiddler again, but now with a combined human and bird’s head, also a sign of the victorious spirit of man. Difficult to interpret is the luminous X-shaped figure behind the fiddler. It could be a white dove rising from the heaviness of the earth to the heavens, with the head and tail still pointing downwards. Have the Jewish symbols here been transformed into universal human symbols, true Apocalypse symbols?

The question remains whether Chagall meant the concept of Apocalypse in a different sense than the now widely used meaning of world downfall, here specified as the destruction of a large part of the Jewish community and culture by the Nazis. He undeniably uses elements from the Apocalypse, but he places them in his own context of the demise of his Russian youth and village of birth, of the death of Bella, of the Holocaust, of the rise of a satanic spirit that wiped out what is holy to him. And the answer to that destructive power he searches stammering between what remains as the black and grey tones of his life.      


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