November 26, 2012
Rabbis, scholars, and students have been interpreting Genesis 22, the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah, for centuries in writings, books, classes and discussions. But another noteworthy form of interpretation of this central biblical narrative is found in visual art. The composition, color and detail selections of the artist reflect his reception of the Bible and its implications. Marc Chagall’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac” and the mosaic depiction of the Akedah on the floor of the 6th century synagogue Beit Alpha offer their different understandings of and priorities about the narrative in Genesis 22. While Marc Chagall’s piece expresses mistrust in God’s promises to Abraham in light of Jewish suffering, Beit Alpha’s artwork stresses God’s compassion to the Jewish people. These two seemingly contrasting views stem from the same famous story that has become a defining fabric in the Jewish narrative, and both are revealed through their respective artistic choices.
Marc Chagall was born in a Jewish ghetto and Hasidic community in Vitebsk Russia in 1887 and then later lived in France. His artistic work is known for its themes of Jewish mysticism, ghetto life, and the Byzantine artistic influence of his childhood. “The Sacrifice of Isaac” portrays the climatic image of the Akedah story, starting from the end of the narrative. Abraham is pictured holding a knife that points away from Isaac, who is lying on a wooden alter. Two angels are above this scene, and Abraham looks up at them. These four players take center stage on the canvas, but there are extra figures and additional scenes pictured around the corners and edges of the painting. These include a very small ram and a tree, next to a pleading woman. There are also other figures in the top right corner of the piece—a crucifixion scene with a nearby kneeling woman, a mother holding her child, and a man with a hat holding books. The painting resembles a stained glass window, as it is sketched in thick dark lines with a wash of fluid primary colors.
At first glance, Chagall’s painting seems very straightforward in comparison with the biblical narrative. Since Abraham’s knife points away from his son, viewers can assume that Isaac, in agreement with Genesis, was spared. With a closer reading of the piece, though, “The Sacrifice of Isaac” is not so simple. Chagall has purposefully included his own commentary on the Bible in his art. Just as a page of Talmud has commentary running around the Mishnah on the edges of the page, so too do the small additional figures in this painting act as commentary to the center story of the binding of Isaac.
The thick black lines tell a different story than the colors. The sketch, again, shows that Abraham listened to the angels and did not sacrifice his son. But the colors of the piece suggest something different. Isaac, who is painted in yellow and red, looks to be consumed in a fire, along with his father. Through these fiery colors, Chagall implies that even if Abraham’s knife did not physically kill Isaac, the two were still consumed in flame, perhaps as a “burnt offering,” metaphorically. The blue angel that is closest to Abraham, who represents the first voice in the story and stops him from harming Isaac, is almost not visible in front of the blue sky. In fact, without the black outlining, there would be no trace of this angel. In other artwork of the Akedah, this angel is often physically stopping Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. But in Chagall’s version, the angel’s arms cannot reach him. With the implications of this “fire” devouring Abraham and Isaac, and the unnoticeable, incapable angel, viewers learn that the story of the Akedah is not one of hope. If we listen to the story of the colors, Chagall shows that in reality this angel who protects us from harm does not exist.
The “commentary” of the surrounding small figures in this painting represent the suffering of the Jewish people. The wailing woman near the ram and the tree, most likely Sarah, pleads to the audience and to God to save her son. The crucifixion scene, obviously representing the ultimate human sacrifice, brings this Christian theme of suffering for the sake of God into the realm of Jewish suffering as well. Again, a mother greaves for her sacrificed son, as the woman kneeling near the cross is most likely Mary. The cross is next to a man who is wearing religious garb, setting the scene in a Jewish ghetto, where immeasurable strife and anguish was inflicted on Jews. The third mother in the painting, holding her child close, looks onto the crucifixion.
This portrayal of Jewish suffering is tied into the main narrative of the binding of Isaac by the second, higher angel who is pointing at the crucifixion and the ghetto scene. This white angel depicts the second voice heard by Abraham, who promises him: “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands of the seashore…” (Genesis 22:17) Since the angel who is responsible for the blessing over Jews points directly to Jewish suffering, viewers understand that Chagall asserts the invalidity of God’s promises.
Chagall’s image contrasts greatly with that of the mosaic floor in Beit Alpha. The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is presented almost like a comic book. Unlike Hebrew, the narrative of the Beit Alpha piece moves chronologically from the left to the right. This direction in itself may suggest some Greek influence. The depiction of the entire biblical story, including even the journey to the mountain, is present in Beit Alpha, unlike Chagall’s piece. Two servants and a donkey are on the left, with a large, vertically positioned ram in a tree pictured in the very center of the painting. On the right-hand side, Abraham stands with his knife next to a burning alter, above which a tiny Isaac suspends in the air near the flames. Abraham, Isaac, and the ram are labeled with their names, and the small hand of God above Abraham is marked with the words “Do not put forth your hand against the lad.” There is also a halo above Abraham’s head.
A major difference between Chagall and the Beit Alpha artist is their choices concerning the ram. Chagall’s ram is on the edge of the piece, basically unnoticeable at first due to its small size. In direct contrast, Beit Alpha’s ram is almost as big as Abraham and is directly in the middle of the piece. Even the tree is smaller than this ram. Perhaps the ram is even in the wrong place in the narrative. After all, Abraham only sees the ram after the hand of God stops him from his sacrifice. Shouldn’t the ram be on the right side of the alter, since the rest of the piece is in the Bible’s chronological order? Why did the mosaic artist make this choice? The ram in the Bible is the replacement sacrifice that God gives to Abraham to spare Isaac from his death. To the Beit Alpha artist, the ram was a gift from God and a symbol of His devotion to saving Isaac and ultimately the Jewish people. The ram is proof for the promises that God blesses on Abraham with the second angel’s voice on the mountain. Since the ram represents God’s compassion and caring for Jews, the artist wanted to stress this compassion as the main message of Genesis 22.
This idea, of course, is completely opposite in Chagall’s painting. Chagall negates the validity of God’s promise through his depictions of Jewish suffering, but Beit Alpha proves this validity in the centrality of the ram. This contrast exists also in the two depictions of Abraham. In Beit Alpha, Abraham is wearing a halo, symbolizing his holiness and his special relationship with God. Chagall, on the other hand, paints Abraham in red and yellow like he is a burnt offering, showing that not even Abraham is spared by God’s blessing from suffering.
One area of interpretation that the two artists painted similarly was that neither Isaac is visibly bound. The Bible does indeed describe Isaac’s bondage, but both artists decided not to include this detail in their works. Perhaps this explains their belief that Isaac played a very passive role in the story. This passivity is true even in the biblical narrative. But Isaac’s passivity has different implications for the two artists. Chagall’s interpretation is that even those who are passive and undeserving are still unfairly harmed. Beit Alpha, on the other hand, would argue that Isaac’s passivity shows his deep trust for Abraham and for God, implying that all Jewish people should hold this same unwavering trust.
From the same story, only 24 verses long, two artists from different times created contrasting representations of the biblical narrative and of the religious reality. Even through the smallest details in color or shape or size, the motives and beliefs of an artist can be evident. From God’s false promises to His unwavering compassion, Genesis 22 holds much debate in interpretation.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for History of Biblical Reception with Rabbi Robbie Harris at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Segal, Eliezer. “Mosaic Musings.” Ha’Atid, the Magazine of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, Elul-isan 5763, September 2002-April 2003 (5:4:20), pp 11-12. http://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/MHCS02_MosaicMusings.html#fn0
“Marc Chagall – Russian Artist.” The Worldwide Art Gallery. N.p., 2000. Web. 20 Nov.2012. http://www.theartgallery.com.au/artEducation/greatartists/ chagall/about/.