The Western Wall ('By the rivers of Babylon we sit down and weep...') by Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall

The Western Wall ('By the rivers of Babylon we sit down and weep...'), 1966, Mosaic, 6 x 5.5 m, The Knesset, Jerusalem, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; Photo: The Knesset, Yitzhak Harrari

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The Yearning of Exiles

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

Born in 1887 in Vitebsk, Belarus (then the Russian Empire), to a Hasidic Jewish family, Marc Chagall is an artist who occupies multiple worlds and his works are the product of a rich combination of Jewish culture, the Bible, and Russian fairy tales with the styles and experiments of modern art.

In 1960 Chagall was invited to design and decorate the Knesset, Israel’s House of Representatives. Chagall designed twelve floor mosaics, one wall mosaic, and three Gobelin tapestries for the new building. The wall mosaic was completed in 1966, one year before the start of the Six-Day War (also known as the Third Arab–Israeli War).

Inspired by one of the subjects suggested to him by the Speaker of the Knesset at the time—Psalm 137—Chagall has no interest in a literal depiction of this curse psalm. Rather, his interest is in the creation of a symbol of the anguished heartache of the Jewish diaspora. To do so he represents the Western Wall, which at the time was under Jordanian control. But even here, Chagall’s interest lies not in an accurate depiction of the Wall but in a vision of it, a vision that would point to the end of exile. Rather than portray the reality of 1967, he designs a mosaic that suggests the yearning of exiles who, like those in Psalm 137, long to return home once and for all.

At the top right of the composition, a column of impressionistic figures appears miraculously suspended above a plaza. On the plaza, a collection of other figures huddles together. At the bottom left of the composition, a single figure leans against the Wall: a solitary symbol of hope. Against a distant horizon lie the Old City and Tower of David, symbols of strength. Floating in the centre of the composition is a menorah with golden flames, whose light illuminates the breast of the descending angel depicted above it. Blowing a shofar, the angel calls out to pilgrims far and near to return to Jerusalem. At the upper left of the composition is a Star of David in full flight, recalling the star of Numbers 24:17, pointing the way home, to Zion and the Temple Mount.



Amishai-Maisels, Ziva. 1973. Tapestries and Mosaics of Marc Chagall at the Knesset (New York: Tudor Publishing Company)

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