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.
22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the name of the place Peniʹel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuʹel, limping because of his thigh. 32Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the sinew of the hip which is upon the hollow of the thigh, because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh on the sinew of the hip.