Abraham and the Three Angels by Marc Chagall

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

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Hospitality on Trial

Commentary by
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.