My choice of a work of Art for Advent this morning is ‘Madonna of the Village,’ by Marc Chagall. This painting, which dates from 1938-1942, is oil on canvas. It measures 102.5 x 98 cm and is in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
Marc Chagall added his signature and two dates to the bottom left corner of the painting (“mArc ChAgAll 1938-942”), referring to its start and completion dates.
In 1938, Chagall was living in Paris, and spending some time also on a farm at Villentrois in Indre-et-Loire. In 1939, he became concerned about his possible arrest and decided to move to Saint Dyé-sur-Loire. He collected his paintings from his Paris studio and took the works to Saint Dyé in a taxi with the help of his daughter Ida.
As German troops advanced towards northern France, the family moved to the south of France on 10 May 1940, and Chagall bought a house in Gordes in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, and his works were brought there in a van.
In the winter of 1940-1941, he resumed work on ‘The Madonna of the Village’. The painting in its final state shows the Madonna holding the Christ Child in her arms, surrounded by angels singing and playing music accompanied by a flying cow with a violin. The scene is set near a small village. The Madonna, rendered on a monumental scale and wearing a bridal gown, floats in a fantasy world that is so characteristic of the painter.
The canvas, which was initially around 20 cm taller, was cut down at the lower edge, so that Chagall removed the motif of the cockerel, symbol of sun and fire. From the 1930s, this bird is linked in Chagall’s work with pairs of lovers and can be associated with love. It could also refer to the bird sacrificed on Yom Kippur.
The removal of this motif from the composition altered the relative importance of the three layers into which it is structured, reducing the earthly zone painted in grey-brown tones at the Virgin’s feet and giving more importance to the blue area of the sky and the upper level in yellow that is filled with angels.
The image of the Virgin is similar to the votive images in Catholic tradition believed to offer protection against catastrophes. Chagall had already made use of Christian iconography, particularly in ‘White Crucifixion,’ in which Christ represents the suffering of the Jewish people.
Chagall continued working on this ambitious canvas and repainted some of the areas that were already sketched. The painting was not entirely completed until 1942, while he was staying in New York.
The Russian-French artist Marc Zakharovich Chagall (1887-1985) has been described as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century.” He worked in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints.
His stained glass windows are in the cathedrals in Reims and Metz, the Fraumünster Cathedral in Zurich, and Saint Stephen’s Church, Mainz, but his best-known windows are probably those in the UN Building in New York, the Jerusalem Windows in a hospital in Israel, and his ‘America Windows’ (1977) in the Art Institute of Chicago. The six-panel work ‘America Windows’ celebrates the US as a place of cultural and religious freedom, detailing the arts of music, painting, literature, theatre and dance.
He was born Moishe Segal into a Jewish family near Vitebsk in what is today Belarus on 6 July 1887. His family steeped in religious life and his parents were observant Hasidic Jews whose life was defined by their faith and organised by prayer.
He moved to St Petersburg, then the Russian capital, and before World War I, he travelled between St Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin. During that period he created his own mixture and style of modern art based on his idea of East European Jewish folk culture. He spent World War I in Belarus before leaving for Paris in 1922.
In December 1940, the Emergency Rescue Committee found Chagall in Gordes. As a Jew who was classified as a “Degenerate” artist, he was a target for the Nazis. An invitation to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, facilitated his departure from France. The Fund for Jewish Refugee Writers collected the funds needed for his travel and visas.
On 7 May 1941, Marc and Bella Chagall left for New York, leaving their daughter Ida in France. Their journey took them across the French-Spanish border and through Madrid to Lisbon, where they had a lengthy wait before embarking for New York in mid-June.
Their heavy luggage included 600 kg of paintings, some completed and others still being worked on, as well as gouaches and drawings, all in trunks and packing cases.
After an eventful journey ‘The Madonna of the Village’ was reunited with Chagall, who resumed working on it again and completed it in 1942, even before he received his first major commission in the US.
In 1946, the Museum of Modern Art in New York in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago devoted a major retrospective to the work of Chagall, which was the first in the US. He returned to France in 1947. Back in France, he painted the ceiling of the Paris Opera in 1963.
“When Matisse dies,” Pablo Picasso once said, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.” He died on 28 March 1985 at the age of 97 in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France.
The only church in the world with a complete set of Chagall window-glass is in the tiny village of Tudeley in Kent. His last commissioned work is the window on the north side of Chichester Cathedral. This stained glass window, designed and created by Chagall at the age of 90, was commissioned by Dean Walter Hussey and was inspired by Psalm 150: “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.”
Tomorrow: ‘Love and the Pilgrim,’ by Edward Burne-Jones.