The Bible

In 1930, Chagall was invited to participate in the Parisian Colonial exhibition as a guest in a pavilion devoted to art from Palestine. Though the planned pavilion failed to materialize, the invitation led Chagall to a renewed consideration of the question of the creation of a contemporary Jewish art. In that same year, Meir Dizengoff, the mayor of Tel Aviv, visited Paris and invited Chagall to come to Palestine for the Purim festival and the laying of the foundation stone of the Tel Aviv Museum. The new museum was to include a collection of reproductions and prints of masterpieces depicting biblical heroes and events. Also in 1930, Ambroise Vollard commissioned Chagall to create illustrations to the Bible. All these events contributed to the artist's decision to undertake a voyage to Palestine in 1931, in order to see first hand the Land of the Bible. While in Palestine, Chagall documented Jewish historical sites, perhaps with the new museum in mind. Upon returning to Paris, he embarked on his first Bible illustrations. Thereafter, biblical themes would play a prominent role in his iconography. His many years of work on these themes culminated in his Museum of the Biblical Message, opened in Nice in 1972.

Chagall's Bible etchings for Vollard's commission were his first engagement with the stories of the Bible, and reflect a 20th century interpretation of Scripture. These works were influenced by his religious upbringing, his familiarity with Hebrew manuscript painting, and his friendship with Bible scholars. Chagall's interpretation of biblical scenes is, however, largely personal. He made his own arbitrary selection of what to illustrate, and many of these scenes are not those traditionally treated. For him, biblical figures such as Moses and David reflected both the history of his ancestors and the living reality that was taking shape in Palestine. Together with this, it is the poetry of the Bible that particularly interested him, and that he expresses with consummate skill.

By 1939, sixty-six of the Bible etchings for Vollard had been printed. Chagall completed the work after World War II, finishing thirty-nine more plates between 1952 and 1956. Lé Tériade finally issued the etchings in 1956, in two unbound volumes with excerpts from a French translation of the Bible made from the Hebrew in Geneva in 1638. A small number of these sets were hand colored by the artist, who gave one set to the Tel Aviv Museum. In 1956 Chagall created seventeen color lithographs for a special issue of the periodical Verve (no. 33-34), also devoted to the Bible. Ida Chagall gave the Israel Museum a number of the original paintings on which the lithographs are based. Chagall gave the Tel Aviv Museum a set of the lithographs.

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