Christians of all eras have painted images and icons of ‘The Madonna’. From the beginning of the 3rd century, one of the earliest images in Christian art represented the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God born of the Virgin Mary. In Rome, in the catacombs of Priscilla, you can see this sketch of the ‘Madonna with Child’. It is the oldest image of Our Lady in Christian history. It portrays the Blessed Virgin and evokes the humble village where she lived: Nazareth.
During the years of the Jewish Holocaust, Marc Chagall painted many religious scenes from the Christian tradition. He painted The White Crucifixion in 1938, already featured on this Franciscan blog and, in the same year, he started another on Madonna of the Village. In 1940, while temporarily living in the Provençal town of Gordes, where he had fled to escape the Nazi advance, he continued to work on the canvas and repainted some of the areas that were already sketched. The painting was not fully completed until 1942, when the painter was staying in New York. He added his signature and two dates in the left corner of the canvas (Marc Chagall 1938-1942), referring to the dates of the beginning and completion of the work.
Chagall had long lived in Christian France and had absorbed the various Christian elements of the ‘Madonna with Child’ when he painted The Madonna of the Village. The Virgin Mary tenderly carries a child in her arms as in the many paintings of Madonnas throughout history.
But Chagall, as a Jew, had his own Madonna in mind. If we look closely at this representation, painted on canvas, we find that the Madonna bears the features of his wife Bella, dressed in white with her child – a girl – Ida. Chagall is also there: he kisses the Madonna from above.
Here the Virgin Mary, a very large-scale figure, covering almost entirely the right side of the painting, appears in her pristine white dress and veil. She seems to present herself as the mediator, the link between heaven and earth.
The coloured areas of this painting range from black at the bottom, to blue in the center, and a cheerful golden hue at the top. The sphere-shaped village that appears at the bottom left is not Nazareth but Vitebsk, Chagall’s native village, which is completely black. It’s night and only one candle brings the light of Our Lady. She appears at night, as the female saviour and the hope of a tortured black village. Perhaps Chagall saw in the love of pure women like Bella the only hope for Jewish cities, which were now increasingly persecuted.
In the center of the painting is the blue sky with its clouds hiding shadows and mystery, as well as two angels: one of azure blue colour with his arms folded on his chest and a white playing the bugle. Above, in the sunlight we see the earthly and divine characters, perhaps symbolizing the nativity scene of the transfigured Nativity. From left to right are: the lover with a bouquet of flowers, the ox or the cow with the violin, the angel and the singer. The result is very lyrical. The Madonna of the Village is a poem in colour.