“Since my early youth,” writes Marc Chagall, “I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and it still seems to me that it is the greatest source of poetry of all time. Since then I have sought this gleam in life and in art…” We have proof of the authenticity of this assertion simply by the fact that Chagall has created many pictorial works illustrating Jacob’s Dream, taken from the Bible.
“When Jacob had reached a certain place, he stopped there for the night, since the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he made it his pillow and lay down where he was. He had a dream: there was a ladder, planted on the ground with its top reaching to heaven; and God’s angels were going up and down on it. And there was Yahweh, standing beside him and saying, ‘I, Yahweh, am the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The ground on which you are lying I shall give to you and your descendants. “ (Gen. 28:11-13).
The painting entitled Jacob’s Dream (1960-1966), which depicts this biblical account, may seem, at first glance, to be the strangest of all Chagall’s paintings on this theme. It consists of two parts, two scenes clearly separated and connected by a curved line. To the left of this line, we recognize Jacob’s dream, but the right part is much more mysterious and enigmatic.
On the left side it is night, with disturbing purple colors, with the exception of red for Jacob and yellow for angels. Jacob, on the way to exile, fell asleep. He is depicted standing and not lying down. It is in this position that Jacob sees angels in a dream to go up and down the seven-bar ladder that connects the earth to heaven. Chagall shows us merry acrobatic angels circling the bars.
Note that Jacob has an open eye and a closed eye: a sign of an inner vision opening on the encounter with the invisible. The invisible that reveals itself to Jacob, here it is: “Truly, Yahweh is in this place and I never knew it!” (Gen 28. 16).
On the right side, emerges from the sky – an almost luminous blue – a very large cherub, with four wings spread, carrying in the center of his body a lit menorah, that is to say the seven-pointed candlestick, symbol of the presence of God. This angel illuminates the dark blue night and thus manifests the hopeful glare of the divine message.
In addition, Chagall places Jacob’s dream in dialogue with two other images on the far right of the canvas: one at the bottom, that of Isaac’s sacrifice and the other at the top, that of Jesus’ sacrifice offered on the cross. Just above, and parallel to the right wing of the angel, the horizontal cross of Christ is surmounted by the ladder. Chagall almost always associates ladder with crucifixions and crucifixions with his presentations of Jacob’s dream. This association, developed by the Fathers of the Church and taken up in Christian iconography, does not fail to evoke the word of Christ who, like the ladder, connects heaven and earth by the cross: “I tell you most solemnly, you will see heaven laid open and, above the Son of Man, the angels of God ascending and descending” (Jn 1 , 51).
For Chagall, the elevation of Christ on the cross fulfills all that Jacob’s dream proclaimed. The ladder that rises from earth to heaven is the cross of Christ that opens the universe to light.