Chagall and the Bible

Marc Chagall - Part 2

Chagall and the Bible

(Return to part 1)


In 1923 he gets the opportunity to emigrate permanently to Paris. There, he is tasked with illustrating Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. When, upon invitation, he starts a series of etches to illustrate the Fables of La Fontaine, this leads to a riot in France.

How could a Jewish artist ever illustrate this classic French book? Initially, the French people were shocked by the way in which Chagall presented the fables. He undermined their educational ideals and let the morality disappear from his work. However, his fairy-like way of working gradually conquered the public.  The new edition even newly evokes an international interest for the fables.


The next project of Chagall is the publication of the illustrated Bible.

Chagall travels to Palestine and Syria in order to find inspiration. As an outsider he returns, a stranger in this world, confronted in the Jewish country with art that does not appeal to him. Not welcome anymore in his country of birth Belarusia, he felt not understood in his new fatherland and was labeled by the Nazis as a ‘degenerate artist’.

Yet he continued his Bible project. It would become his Opus Magnum. Each night his deeply beloved wife Bella Rosenfeld read fragments from the Bible to him, and the next day Marc etched what he had heard. This went on day in, day out, for years. It provided a book work of almost one thousand pages, hardly possible to lift. Although Chagall put the entire Christian image iconography upside down, the publication of his Bible evoked a lot of goodwill.

Would it be because he worked like an autonomous artist and was not at all impressed by the classic biblical images? According to the art-historian Willem Meijer, he was inspired by biblical motives in order to create ‘his own reality’ with them. For instance, he did not give the usual biblical conclusion to the theme of reconciliation. For him, it was about the reconciliation of the opposites in this world: man and woman, human and animal, good and evil, death and life, God and man, religion A opposing religion B, et cetera. One might say it was a reconciliation of the apparently unbridgeable polarity within dialectics.

Let us take a look at this on the basis of the classic opposite between good and evil.

Chagall did not look at evil as being a sin, rather as a factual matter. Good and evil both emanate from God; here on earth they need to learn to deal with each other. A human being must deal in a positive way with evil. It challenges him to show his moral grandness. And this very much approaches the Manichean and Bogomil adage:

Love the evil.

It is not for nothing that Chagall never gave titles to his paintings. Many times they were ‘invented’ by others, using forcedly religious use of language! However, Marc Chagall left it to the viewer to interpret the images: everybody was allowed to have his or her own opinion!

He regarded Christianity as one of the expressions of one single primordial religion. His ideal was to create a place somewhere beyond and above all religions and confessions. The Chagall Museum in Nice provided that function. It disposes of the life philosophy attributed to Chagall:

The word divides, the church excludes, but the image unites.


(To be continued in part 3)

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Article info

Date: November 10, 2022
Author: Dick van Niekerk and Ankie Hettema (Netherlands)
Photo: Marc Chagall museum Nice CCO

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