Jacob and the Angel by Jacob Epstein

Jacob Epstein

Jacob and the Angel, 1940–41, Alabaster, Unconfirmed: 214 x 110 x 92 cm, 2500 kg, Tate; Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund, and the Henry Moore Foundation 1996, T07139, © The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein, Photo: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

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The Tensions of Encounter

Commentary by

Jacob Epstein’s sculpture Jacob and the Angel admits no easy interpretation of the biblical episode narrated in Genesis 32. Instead it provokes the viewer to look again, as each glance unsettles the conclusions of the last.

If the scriptural narrative of Jacob wrestling with the angel presents the reader with a series of tensions—Jacob prevails (32:25, 27) but the angel strikes the final blow (vv.31–2); the angel wounds Jacob (v.32) and the angel blesses Jacob (v.29); the angel is called both a man (vv.24–5) and the one by whom Jacob sees God face to face (v.30)—Epstein does not resolve those tensions so much as invite the beholder to contemplate them visually.

One of the heaviest objects in Tate’s collections at 2500kg, Epstein’s statue renders the figures of Jacob and the angel with wide proportions that visually emphasize their ponderousness. At the same time, the alabaster stone of which they’re made is almost translucent in places, capturing light in a way that gives the figures something of a weightless quality. Are the figures weighty or light? Material or immaterial? Earthly or heavenly?

And what are these subjects doing?

From some perspectives, their encounter appears erotic, as if the angel grips Jacob in an amorous embrace. Perhaps Jacob is reciprocating by pressing his body into the angel’s. Or perhaps the encounter is less reciprocal, less symmetrical. For, from other perspectives, the angel appears to hold Jacob up with his arms and bend his legs to support his weight as Jacob hangs limply, impotently. The angel’s heels rise from the ground, as if he is lifting Jacob up, whose heels also elevate slightly. Look again; is the angel bearing Jacob up or squeezing the last breath from him? Is this an embrace unto life or death?

The asymmetry of their agency in this perspective contrasts with the symmetry of their composition. By size and weight, Jacob and the angel are equals, and yet that equality, like all the tensions structuring this encounter, underscores their more fundamental inequality: that Jacob was never a match for this angel.

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