Le Cantique des Cantiques II (Song of Songs II I.7) by Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall

Le Cantique des Cantiques II (Song of Songs II I.7), 1957, Oil on canvas, 139 x 164 cm, Museé National Marc Chagall, Nice, Photo: Adrien Didierjean; © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

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A Dream of Love

Commentary by

Marc Chagall’s five-painting series Le Cantique des Cantiques presents a visual counterpart to the poetic lyricism of the Song of Solomon, both its meandering and its habit of repeating themes and images and playing variations on them. Chagall achieves this by representing, as he so often does in his work, many different scenes within a single painting. Like the biblical poet, Chagall blurs distinctions between desire and fulfilment, and between past, present, and future.

Desire is such stuff as dreams are made on. The floating figures and dreamlike incongruities characteristic of Chagall’s painting are particularly at home in a representation of the Song, where they reflect something of the Song’s dreamlike quality, its reverie and fantasy. Le Cantique des Cantiques II, the second painting in the series, may invite the viewer to contemplate Song 5:2, ‘I was sleeping but my heart was awake. Listen! My lover is knocking!’ (own translation), a verse that blurs distinctions between sleep and wakefulness.

While our gaze is drawn to the woman’s naked body at the centre of the composition, other features of the painting compete with her body for our attention. The woman seems to be sleeping on a flowery bed atop a tree, floating above the city, and her lover is nearby, represented by only his face, seen here beneath her right thigh. In the right background an angel wearing a crown and playing a harp hovers above a throne, an allusion to King David, the sweet psalmist of Israel. The woman is represented again in the figure wearing a wedding veil in the bottom right-hand corner, almost as though she is the source of the bucolic vision of herself that dominates the painting (though perhaps she is the one being dreamed?). The lovers appear to be represented together in the top left-hand corner.

All five paintings in the series are dominated by dazzling shades of pink, rose, and red, the warm and hot hues suggesting vitality, sensuality, and the heat of passion.

 

References

Chagall, Marc. 1976. Musée national Message biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, trans. by C. de Chabannes (Paris: Ministère des affaires culturelles; Editions des musées nationaux)

Exum, J. Cheryl. 2019. Art as Biblical Commentary: Visual Criticism from Hagar the Wife of Abraham to Mary the Mother of Jesus (London: T&T Clark)

Harris, Nathaniel. 1994. The Life and Works of M. Chagall: A Compilation of Works from the Bridgeman Art Library (London: Parragon)


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