Marc Chagall

Abraham and the Three Angels, c.1960–66, Oil on canvas, 190 x 292 cm, Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France; MBMC6, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; Photo: Gérard Blot © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Hospitality on Trial

Commentary by Aaron Rosen

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Read by Lydia Ayoade

What is the best way to depict a dinner party? For Christian painters, the answer has been obvious. Whether the subject is the Last Supper or the Hospitality of Abraham, figures are almost always shown facing the viewer. Marc Chagall turns his back on this iconography. Throughout his career, he frequently returned to the story of Abraham and the angels. While he played with a number of arrangements, he consistently turns his angels away from the viewer. There is a puckishness to this choice, typical of an artist who prized his ingenuity, but also something more profound: Chagall deliberately avoids creating a devotional relationship between the viewer and the angels. They are never presented as a Holy Trinity. Instead, our eyes are drawn to Abraham standing at the far left of the composition, who returns our gaze. We cannot help feeling a bit like uninvited guests, travellers who have arrived too late and find the table full and the host exhausted.

Chagall makes other adjustments, too. In an earlier version, Chagall included the binding of Isaac in the top right of his composition, echoing images from the sixth-century mosaics in San Vitale, Ravenna, and Lorenzo Ghiberti’s fifteenth-century bronze reliefs for the doors of Florence Baptistery. From a Christian perspective, pairing the two scenes makes perfect sense: the angels represent the Trinity and the Sacrifice of Isaac prefigures the Crucifixion. This may be precisely why Chagall omitted this event in the later work. Instead, he depicts the angels descending toward Sodom at the upper right. The linking of the hospitality story with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) follows biblical chronology more closely. Just as importantly, it raises questions that have historically concerned Jewish commentators. The angels’ visit demonstrates Abraham’s personal hospitality. The Sodom story, though, puts his charity to a more global test. We know the patriarch will open his home to strangers, but will he stick up for people of ill repute? Chagall’s image emphasizes the connection between personal and social duties. We must stick out our necks, even—maybe especially—for those who can’t possibly be angels.

See full exhibition for Genesis 18

Genesis 18

Revised Standard Version

18 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, 3and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.” 7And Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds, and milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9 They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10The Lord said, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

16 Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? 19No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” 20Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorʹrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know.”

22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom; but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23Then Abraham drew near, and said, “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” 26And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27Abraham answered, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Wilt thou destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29Again he spoke to him, and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31He said, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.