Jakob Ringt mit den Engel (Jacob Wrestles with the Angel) by Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann

Jakob Ringt mit den Engel (Jacob Wrestles with the Angel), 1920, Drypoint on medium, slightly textured cream laid paper, 288 x 222 mm, The Portland Art Museum; The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, 80.122.391, Courtesy of the Portland Art Museum

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Ascending with Angels

Commentary by

Into the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel at Peniel/Penuel (face of God in Hebrew), Max Beckmann drops a second scene: Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending at Bethel (house of God in Hebrew). That the scenes are combined we may find intriguing, and the way they are combined, more intriguing still.

In the top third of the print, a haloed angel stares toward some distant horizon as if unbothered by the action in which it is entangled. The angel has raised its hands in a gesture of praise that also mimics a gesture of surrender, but it seems neither exultant nor anxious. Positioned in front of the ladder, the angel is still. This section of the print is, overall, uncluttered, dominated by the power radiating from the angel’s face.

The bottom two-thirds of the print are much busier. That section is dominated by Jacob’s contorted body, holding on to the angel for dear life, as if he is hoping to ascend with it. Is this the blessing Jacob seeks? It is clear, at least, that whatever blessing or glory he receives from this encounter will not be from his own strength but from his persistence in hanging on to divine life.

The angel, too, is moving in the bottom portion of the print. In contrast to his head and chest in the top third of the print, his legs seem to be behind the ladder, his bare feet gripping the rungs. Despite the appearance of stillness in the upper half, this angel is propelling himself upward.

The viewer’s eyes ascend the long line of Beckmann’s ladder up toward the top section of the print, toward the angelic face, unmoving and ringed with glory. In following this path, they imitate Jacob, as he holds on to the divine messenger in determined hope of blessing.

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