Early Christian Depictions of Christ (Part V)

Early Byzantine Depictions of Christ – The Constantinian Shift

By using the term “Constantinian shift” I am denoting the evolution of Christianity that transpired in the period between Constantine’s reign and the writing of Augustine’s City of God; it is the era of the alliance between Christianity and political power. During this period, Emperor Constantine grantedreligious freedom to Christians by the legalizing of the Christian faith with the Edict of Milan (313), which was soon followed by Emperor Theodosius making Christianity the state religion (381).[1]

This imperial underwriting of the Christian faith lead to a significant shift of the attitude towards the nature of Christianity, changing it from the status of a derisory religion-on-the-margins to an attitude of establishment and conventionality. It allowed the Christian faith to flourish and become more popular, leading to more public displays of Christian art, including images of Christ. This reversed the need for cryptic and allusive depictions of Christ such as those to be found in the catacombs, dramatically shifting the tone in how Christ was artistically portrayed.

After his conversion to Christianity, Constantine was a prolific erector of religious edifices and his establishment of Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople) as the Roman Empire’s new capital had extensive effects, amongst which was the growth of Constantinople into a hub of artistic patronage, leading to the appearance of new Christian basilicas and novel iconography. The heart of the basilica, the apse, provided a perfect place to depict Christ with the eye being ineluctably drawn to the nave.[2]

Figure 1 (click to enlarge). Christ and the Apostles, apse mosaic, ca. 390-420, Rome, Santa Pudenziana.

Figure 1 (click to enlarge). Christ and the Apostles, apse mosaic, ca. 390-420, Rome, Santa Pudenziana.

One of the earliest extant apse depictions, if not the earliest, of Christ is that found in the church of Santa Pudenziana (see figure 1). Here Christ is dressed in imperial garb and sits enthroned on a chair overlaid with pearls and gems. He is surrounded by his apostles, who are subordinated to him by being seated at a lower level. The book Christ is holding contains the words: “I, the Lord, am the preserver of the church of Pudenziana.” What is unique about this depiction is the appearance of Golgotha, a conquering cross, the four-winged beasts of Revelation, and the heavenly Jerusalem. In short, Christ is here depicted as the divine savior who shall return at the end of days to set up his kingdom.

Christ as the Good Shepherd, the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, c. 425-426

Figure 2 (click to enlarge). Mosaic of Christ as the Good Shepherd, the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy, ca. 425-26.

While the portrayal of Christ as miracle worker gained popularity in the first century of the Byzantine era, the depiction of Christ as shepherd slowly began to disappear in the fourth century.[3] Any images of Christ which did utilize these motifs underwent a noticeable change. An example of this is the early-fifth century image of Christ as a shepherd in Ravenna (see figure 2). Here Christ is a shepherd, but draped in clothing too ostentatious for a simple shepherd. The nimbus around his head and the golden imperial clothing portrays him as the divine shepherd. With its noticeable use of gold, this mosaic is characteristic of Byzantine art, though the illusion of a three-dimensional space is a holdover from the Classical era of art and is soon discarded in Byzantine art in favor of more symbolism.

xxx

Figure 3 (click to enlarge). Apse Mosaic of Christ between two angels (Saint Vitalis and Bishop Ecclesius), San Vitale Basilica, Ravenna, Italy, ca. 526-47.

While there are many beautiful mosaics from the Byzantine period, I will just show this last one (figure 3). Here is a beardless and short-haired Christ in the style of the early catacomb depictions. Yet here he sits enthroned upon a globe, with the book in his hand probably being the Book of Life, signifying that he is ready to judge the world. Christ is seated between two angels, with the one on the right being St. Vitalis who is receiving a crown (of martyrdom), and the one on the left being Bishop Ecclesius who is offering up his church to Christ.

[1] For the latest examination of Constantine’s relationship with (and influence on) Christianity, see Charles Matson Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire, second ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010). Other useful reading material on Constantine and Theodosius can be found in Bill Leadbetter’s articles: “From Constantine to Theodosius (and beyond),” in The Early Christian World, Volume I (Routledge, 2000), pp. 258-292; “Constantine,” in The Early Christian World, Volume II (Routledge, 2000), pp. 1069-1087; and “Constantine and Church,” in The Early Christian World, Volume II, pp. 1075-1081.

[2] For some useful literature on early Christian art and architecture, see Robin Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art (Routledge, 2000), pp. 8-94;Mathews, Clash of the Gods (Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 94-95; Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, fourth ed. (Penguin Books, 1986); Michael L. White, “Architecture: The First Five Centuries,” in The Early Christian World, Vol. II (Routledge, 2000), pp. 693-746.

[3] For an explanation on the disappearance of the shepherd motif, see Boniface Ramsey, “A Note on the Disappearance of the Good Shepherd in Art,” Harvard Theological Review 76.3 (1983): 375-378. The thrust of his argument is that the Christ as shepherd motif was subsumed under the Christ as teacher motif, due to Christ’s role as a shepherd being largely thought of as a didactic role. Additionally, since the church was now legitimate in the eyes of the Roman Empire, there was no longer a need for a shepherd to protect them.

[Note: This blog claims no credit for any of these images. Images on this blog are copyright to their respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please let me know and the image will be promptly removed.]

Nice Review Book in the Mail

Yesterday I received a review copy of the newly published volume, Paul and Mark: Comparative Essays – Two Authors at the Beginnings of Christianity (Walter de Gruyter, 2014).

From the book description at Amazon:

This volume contains a comprehensive evaluation of the hypothesis that the Gospel of Mark has been influenced by the theology of the apostle Paul. It discusses the history of this view from the nineteenth century to the modern day, analyses possible historical connections between the apostle and the evangelist, and compares and contrasts many major theological themes in both the epistles and the Gospel. This important collection of essays will be of major significance in the growing debate over Pauline influence on the Gospel of Mark.

 

Early Christian Depictions of Christ (Part IV)

The Earliest Visual Depictions of the Crucified Christ

For an introduction to the presence of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ, see Felicity Harley McGowan. “The Crucifixion,” in ed. Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 227-232.

As I mentioned in the first part of this series, there is a dearth of images of the crucified Christ in early Christian art. A compelling reason that can explain this absence is that crucifixion was considered a repugnant and degrading punishment in polite Roman society, thus there was the desire of not wanting to remind potential converts that it was the Roman government who executed Christ in the manner typically reserved for violent criminals and slaves. Additionally, in Jewish thought, crucifixion was detestable due to Jewish law stating that anyone executed by crucifixion was under the curse of God (Deut. 21:23; cf. Gal. 3:13).[1]

The ignominious status that death by crucifixion had in the eyes of the populace is most likely the reason for the lack of depictions of the crucified Christ in early Christian art prior to the fifth century. In fact, what is possibly the earliest depiction of the crucified Christ, and which typically thought to have be drawn by a non-Christian, is the third century graffito where Christ is mockingly portrayed with a donkey’s head (see figure 1). Interestingly, Tertullian (Apology 16 and Ad nationes 11) rebuffs the charge that Christians worshipped an ass-headed deity.

Crucifixion Art I

Figure 1. Graffito of Christ’s crucifixion, Imperial Palace wall on the Palatine Hill, Rome, third century. The accompanying inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships [his] God.”

There are also instances of a crucified figure, possibly Christ, to be found on various magical amulets dated from the second and third centuries (see figure 2), though there is a very real possibility that these are of pagan origin as well.

Crucifixion Art II

Figure 2. A bloodstone seal, Gaza, ca. 2nd-3rd century.

While almost all of the extant earliest Christian art dates from the third to fifth centuries and is to be found in the catacombs, there is an often overlooked depiction of the crucified Christ in the literature on the subject, namely, early papyri manuscripts of the Christian scriptures. While it is commonly thought that the crucifixion of Christ did not really begin to be visually depicted until about the fourth or fifth century, Larry Hurtado has argued that “the earliest extant visual reference” to Christ is to be found in the use of the tau-rho ligature.[2]

This ligature consists of the Greek majuscule forms of the letters tau and rho (see figure 3), with the vertical lines of both letters being superimposed on one another, and is used in nomina sacra forms of the Greek words σταυρός, “cross”) and σταυρόω (“crucify”). Hurtado, Early Christian Artifacts, pp. 135-154, looks at three early manuscripts that exhibit instances of the staurogram being used to abbreviate “cross” (σταυρός) and “crucify” (σταυρόω): P75, P66, and P45 (which are all dated to the third century).

Bodmer papyrus P66, a copy of the Gospel of John, ca 200 CE.

Figure 3. P66, a copy of the Gospel of John, ca 200 CE.

There is evidence that the Greek letter tau was considered by some early Christians as an appropriate symbol of Jesus’ cross (cf. the Epistle of Barnabas 9:7-9). Hurtado contends that the loop of the rho in the tau-rho ligature suggests “the head of a crucified figure” and that this ligature should thus be recognized as a staurogram, that is, “a visual reference to the crucified Jesus.” Jensen (Early Christian Art, p. 138) agrees, saying that it is “a kind of pictogram… an actual reference to the cross of crucifixion.” Considering that the use of the staurogram can reasonably be dated back to decades before the approximate dating of the papyrus manuscripts in which it is found, this hypothesis of the staurogram’s significance places the earliest visual depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion to sometime in the second century, about two centuries earlier than the art typically understood as being the earliest depictions.

[1] For more on the views of crucifixion in Roman society, see Martin Hengel’s classic work on this topic, Crucifixion (1976 German original; English edition: Fortress Press, 1977), esp. pp. 33-63. For more on the Jewish perception, see Hengel, Crucifixion, pp. 84-85; and David W.Chapman, Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), pp. 223-262. Two other notable works, focusing more on the use of terminology associated with crucifixion, see Gunnar Samuelsson, Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), and John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014).

[2] See Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 135-54; idem, “The Staurogram in Early Christian Manuscripts: The Earliest Visual Reference to the Crucified Jesus?,” in Thomas J. Kraus and Tobias Nicklas (eds), New Testament Manuscripts: Their Texts and Their World (Leiden: Brill, 2006), pp. 207-26; idem, “The Staurogram: Earliest Depiction of Jesus’ Crucifixion,” Biblical Archaeology Review March-April 2013.

[Note: This blog claims no credit for any of these images. Images on this blog are copyright to their respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please let me know and the image will be promptly removed.]

Early Christian Depictions of Christ (Part III)

Christ in the Catacombs: Christ the Miracle Worker

As apparent from the likes of the cult of Asclepius, a Greek deity of healing and medicine, the belief in the miraculous curing abilities of a deity was a key component in the cultic life of the typical Roman citizen. Similar to the portrayal of Christ as shepherd, the depiction of Christ as miracle worker also draw upon pagan motifs. A good example of this is that depictions of Christ as miracle worker invariably have him brandishing a hand-held tool for the task (see figure 1). While this apparatus is, of course, at first glance a magician’s wand, in the eye of the Christian beholder it is instead a staff, portraying Christ as the “New Moses” (cf. Ex. 4:2-5) and also a possible allusion to his role as shepherd of God’s people (cf. Psa. 23:4). For more on this see Lee Jefferson’s recently published work, Christ the Miracle Worker in Early Christian Art, where there is an entire chapter that specifically focuses upon the staff of Jesus (pp. 145-176). For a slightly different view that argues the wand specifically is meant to portray Christ as a magician, see Thomas Mathews, The Clash of the Gods: Calling the Imperial Argument into Question, pp. 54-91.

Jesus with a wand raising Lazarus (click to enlarge),  Catacomb of the Giordani, Rome, third century.

Figure 1 (click to enlarge). Jesus with a staff/wand raising Lazarus, Catacomb of the Giordani, Rome, third century.

This motif of miracle worker is apparently more prevalent than that the shepherd in early Christian art, appearing in pre-Byzantine art in the funerary contexts of catacomb art and sarcophagi sculptures, an appropriate setting due to the confidence it instills in the future resurrection (see figures 2, 3, and 4 for a small sampling). Jefferson tells us that Christ as miracle worker is “ubiquitous” in early Christian art, “especially in the fourth century” but “dissipated after the fifth century, nearly disappearing altogether” (Jefferson, Christ the Miracle Worker, pp.2-3). Also, see pp. 87-108 where he examines three specific images of Christ’s curative capability: the healing of the paralytic (Mk 2:1-12), the bleeding woman (Mk 5:21-43), and the blind (e.g. Mk 8: 22-26; 10:51).

The preponderance of art displaying the miracle-working Christ should not be terribly surprising when one takes into consideration that the canonical Gospels likewise place an emphasis on this aspect of Christ’s life, providing almost three dozen mentions of the healing power of Christ. Medical motifs are also apparent in non-canonical early Christian texts as well, e.g. Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians 7:2 (“there is only one Physician”), and 20:2 (“breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die”).

Christ healing the Bleeding Woman

Figure 2 (click to enlarge). Christ healing the bleeding woman, Catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter, late-third century.

Through Christ being portrayed as a miracle worker, the Christian faith was shown to the people as being a viable, and even stronger, option than what the pagan religions provided. “Jesus is the miracle worker par excellence, superior to any rival deity” (Jefferson, Christ the Miracle Worker, p. 3). Also, note Origen’s claim that: “Without miracles and wonders they would not have persuaded those who heard new doctrines and new teachings to leave their traditional religion and to accept the apostles’ teaching at the risk of their lives” (Contra Celsum I:46).

Figure 3 (click to enlarge). Christ healing the paralytic. Dura Europos Domus Ecclesiae, Syria, mid-third century.

Figure 3 (click to enlarge).
Christ healing the paralytic, Dura Europos house church, Syria, mid-third century.

A Ewer with Jesus Healing the Blind Man, Rome, late-fourth century.

Figure 4 (click to enlarge). A Ewer with Jesus Healing the Blind Man, Rome, late-fourth century.

[Note: This blog claims no credit for any of these images. Images on this blog are copyright to their respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please let me know and the image will be promptly removed.]

Early Christian Depictions of Christ (Part II)

Pre-Byzantine Christian Depictions of Christ

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge). Christ as Sol Invcitus, St. Peter’s necropolis, Rome, mid-third century.

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge).
Christ as Sol Invictus, St. Peter’s necropolis, Rome, mid-third century.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge). Christ as Orpheus, Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, early-fourth century.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge).
Christ as Orpheus, Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, early-fourth century.

As far as I can ascertain there is no extant art from the first two centuries that can be firmly labeled Christian. This is probably due, in part at least, to the fact that during this period Christian groups were mostly comprised of people from the lower-class where money for art was in scarce supply. Most of what we do know about the earliest Christian art is found in the frescoes of the catacombs, where Christ is depicted through the utilization of themes drawn from pagan deities. Examples of this include Christ appearing in the guise of the Roman sun deity Sol Invictus (see figure 1) and the Greek god Orpheus (see figure 2). There are also possible deliberate similarities between images of Christ and the deities of the Graeco and Roman pantheons of Antiquity, such as the bearded Christ (see figure 3), which is reminiscent of the beard of Zeus or Poseidon, as well as the beardless, youthful Christ (see figure 4), which suggests the youthful images of Apollo or Dionysus. While Christians indeed appropriated the artistic motifs available to them from pagan art, this adaptation was not taken wholesale and was infused with the Christian viewers’ beliefs.

Figure 3 (click to enlarge). Christ with a beard, Catacomb of Commodilla, late-fourth century.

Figure 3 (click to enlarge).
Christ with a beard, Catacomb of Commodilla, late-fourth century.

Figure 4 Beardless Christ teaching his apostles, Catacomb of Domitilla, Rome, late-third early-fourth century.

Figure 4 (click to enlarge).
Beardless Christ teaching his apostles, Catacomb of Domitilla, Rome, early-fourth century.

The catacombs are a good repository for early Christian art due to two key reasons: (1) belief in a bodily resurrection by Christians meant they were more likely to bury their fellow believers rather than undergo the common Roman funerary practice of cremation; and (2) any artwork in the catacombs was safe from prying eyes due to Roman law outlawing the desecration of such places. However, as J.D. Breckenridge notes, “the exact number and nature of pre-Constantinian Christian works of art is the subject of acrimonious debate” and that “the dating of catacomb paintings is often problematic” (“The Reception of Art into the Early Church,” Atti Congresso Internazionale di Archeologia Cristiana 9 (1978): pp. 361-369; p. 365). Furthermore, due to the pagan antecedents of some of the images of Christ, it is not always clear whether an image is actually of Christ. The images can, however, be easier to categorize when one takes into consideration the images of the surrounding context. Despite these uncertainties, there is a general consensus to be found in the relevant literature on the subject matter that one can safely assign some catacomb depictions of Christ to the pre-Byzantine period.

Christ in the Catacombs: Christ the Shepherd

A recurring theme found in the early depictions of Christ, typically being employed in baptismal and funerary contexts, is that of the kriophoros – the ram-bearer. Breckenridge also notes that there are “some 73 examples [of Christian catacomb art] dated to 300 A.D. or earlier bearing portrayals one might relate as symbols of the person of Christ: 63 Good Shepherds, a few Fishers of Men, Christ in a variety of Miracle scenes (all late in the century), and the Baptism three times” (ibid). Robin Jensen lists 120 examples of Christ as a shepherd in the catacomb frescoes (Understanding Early Christian Art, p. 37).

Figure 5 (click to enlarge). Christ as shepherd, St. Callisto Catacomb, Rome, mid-third century.

Figure 5 (click to enlarge).
Christ as shepherd, St. Callisto Catacomb, Rome, mid-third century.

Figure 6 (click to enlarge). Christ as shepherd, Vatican Museum, Rome, early-fourth century.

Figure 6 (click to enlarge).
Christ as shepherd, Vatican Museum, Rome, early-fourth century.

This motif existed for a very long before Christ, with it often being found in ancient Roman funerary art and on various media such as statues and pottery. This shepherd motif draws upon the Greek deity of Hermes, the patron deity of shepherds. The image of the shepherd was one of benevolence in the Graeco-Roman world and is typically depicted as a youthful, beardless man, garbed in a tunic. Yet despite possessing pagan antecedents, the image of the kriophoros enjoyed certain popularity in early depictions of Christ (see figures 5, 6, and 7), though he was sometimes depicted as standing among the sheep rather than bearing them on his shoulders (see figure 8). This popularity would, to a degree, have been precisely due to the pagan connections the image possessed, because while this would have made the depictions of Christ appear innocuous to any Roman authorities or non-Christians who came upon them, the Christians could nevertheless link it back to their sacred scriptures (e.g., Psa. 23:1; Isa 40:11; Jn 10:1-16; Heb 13:20; and 1 Pet. 5:4).

Figure 7 (click to enlarge). Christ as shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, late-third century.

Figure 7 (click to enlarge).
Christ as shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, late-third century.

Figure 8 (click to enlarge). Christ as shepherd, Museo Epigrafico, Rome, early-fourth century.

Figure 8 (click to enlarge).
Christ as shepherd, Museo Epigrafico, Rome, early-fourth century.

[Note: This blog claims no credit for any of these images. Images on this blog are copyright to their respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please let me know and the image will be promptly removed.]

Early Christian Depictions of Christ (Part I)

Time for another blog series on Christian art! This series of blog posts will provide a brief look at the evolution of the image of Christ from its humble beginnings in the catacombs to the artistic splendor of the early Byzantine period, with a spotlight being put on the development of the crucified Christ.

Despite the multitude of images available of Jesus of Nazareth, no one obviously knows what he really looked like. Yet thanks to popular artists of the Renaissance period such as Da Vinci and the popular Baroque artist Rembrandt, the typical image of Christ in Western culture is that of a willowy somber-faced man with long dark hair and a tidy beard. This is not how Jesus was depicted in the earliest extant images. In fact, the earliest images of Christ demonstrate that the focus was not on the specific look of Christ (such as physiognomic details), but on the roles that he possesses in the community of the faithful; the earliest depictions of Christ are images, not portraits. To quote Robin M. Jensen in her classic book on the topic, in early Christian art “the emphasis was on the meaning behind the images more than on their presentation” (Understanding Early Christian Art, pg. 24).

A careful consideration of the progression of the image of Christ from the earliest catacomb images to those of the early Byzantine period demonstrates that while depictions of Christ in various roles such as shepherd and miracle worker were ubiquitous in early Christian art, these motifs underwent a metamorphosis during the Byzantine period. Another transformation that occurred during this period was the emergence of the crucified Christ, an image which is peculiarly absent from the earliest Christian artistic record. This dearth of images of the crucified Christ is quite anomalous considering that the death of Christ upon the cross was considered of the utmost importance in the earliest extant Christian writings (e.g. 1 Cor. 2:2), with it being inextricably tied up in the earliest kerygma (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:3; Phil. 2:8).

Select Bibliography

A few books I’ve found helpful in studying early Christian art (in no particular order):

James Stevenson, The Catacombs: Rediscovered Monuments of Early Christianity. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985.

Thomas Mathews, The Clash of the Gods: Calling the Imperial Argument into Question. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

André Grabar, Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Robert Milburn, Early Christian Art and Architecture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Paul Corby Finney, The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians in Art. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.

John Lowden, Early Christians and Byzantine Art. London: Phaidon Press, 1997.

Jean-Michel Spieser, “The Representation of Christ in the Apses of Early Christian Churches,” Gesta 37.1 (1998): pp. 63-73.

Matilda Webb, The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide. Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2001.

Robin M. Jensen, “Art,” in ed. Philip F. Esler, The Early Christian World, Vol. II. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000; pp. 747-772.

_____ Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005.

_____ Understanding Early Christian Art. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000.

Jás Elsner, Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire, AD 100-450. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church. Revised edition. New York, NY: Norton & Co., 2007.

Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art. Yale: Yale University Press, 2009.

Lee Jefferson, Christ the Miracle Worker in Early Christian Art. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014.

 

God Will Provide the Burnt Offering? Marc Chagall’s The Sacrifice of Isaac (Part V)

Figure I; Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1960-66; oil on canvas; Chagall Museum, Nice.

Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1960-66; oil on canvas; Chagall Museum, Nice.

See Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Chagall’s Use of Color

Four basic colors –red, blue, yellow, and brown– construct most of the painting, along with a touch of white and green. Chagall has elected to flatten out the image of the painting rather than provide a three-dimensional rendition, allowing him to more freely apply these colors independently from the contours of the characters and objects, and it is this use of color which helps convey Chagall’s distinct interpretation of the Aqedah where Isaac is indeed the “burnt offering.”

The body of Isaac is swallowed up in red and yellow, the colors of flames, reminiscent of the Nazi crematoria that were responsible for the deaths of millions of European Jews. The pallid brown color of the scene above is symbolic of the smoke and ashes of the Holocaust victims. Moreover, the red color streaming down from the cross-bearing Jesus is richly evocative of blood, evoking a key piece of New Testament theology –the blood of Jesus– into the painting. Yet while the blood of Jesus is seen in the New Testament as being God’s provision for the atonement of sin, it is not what Chagall intends to communicate to the viewer here. The red engulfs Abraham and Isaac, telling us that both Abraham and Isaac were ultimately consumed as a “burnt offering,” seen in the suffering of their descendants.

The blue section of the painting represents the sky and heavens, the ethereal realm that is separate from the harsh reality of the yellow and red that we face in the world. Note that the ram is found in this section of the painting, perhaps indicating that the promised substitute for Isaac is not to be found in this unsympathetic world that is full of misery, but only in the hopeful realm of fantasy. Thus, ultimately there is no substitute for Isaac or his descendants.

Concluding Thoughts

After examining this painting I think it is quite apparent that Marc Chagall’s The Sacrifice of Isaac is more of a reinterpretation of the Aqedah rather than a strict and faithful depiction of the biblical text. At first glance, Chagall’s painting seems in harmony with the Aqedah due to Abraham’s knife pointing away from Isaac. Yet, as the winking Isaac reveals, it is not so simple. No mention is made of Isaac returning with Abraham (Gen. 22:19) and Chagall, in a similar manner as some Rabbis, plays upon this ambiguity by subtly depicting Abraham as having sacrificed Isaac. Indeed, notice that Chagall titled this work “The Sacrifice of Isaac” and not “The Binding of Isaac.”

Chagall’s use of color, combined with his use of the crucifixion scene as commentary, reveals that he is using this painting to issue a grievance against the God of Abraham and Isaac. I see Chagall’s complaint being that this God seems to have all but forgotten the Chosen People now. Chagall is raising the question of how is one to view Abraham’s statement in Gen. 22:8 about God’s provision of the ram, as well as God’s reissued promises in Gen. 22:15-18, in view of the future that played out, that is, the history of Jewish suffering and the horrors of the Holocaust. As a representation of the paradigmatic suffering Jew, Jesus carries the cross on the road to Golgotha; no ram will be provided for him nor for Abraham, Isaac, and their descendants.

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