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.
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)
1I come to my garden, my sister, my bride,
I gather my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
I drink my wine with my milk.
Eat, O friends, and drink:
drink deeply, O lovers!
2I slept, but my heart was awake.
Hark! my beloved is knocking.
“Open to me, my sister, my love,
my dove, my perfect one;
for my head is wet with dew,
my locks with the drops of the night.”
3I had put off my garment,
how could I put it on?
I had bathed my feet,
how could I soil them?
4My beloved put his hand to the latch,
and my heart was thrilled within me.
5I arose to open to my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with liquid myrrh,
upon the handles of the bolt.
6I opened to my beloved,
but my beloved had turned and gone.
My soul failed me when he spoke.
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
7The watchmen found me,
as they went about in the city;
they beat me, they wounded me,
they took away my mantle,
those watchmen of the walls.
8I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
if you find my beloved,
that you tell him
I am sick with love.
9What is your beloved more than another beloved,
O fairest among women?
What is your beloved more than another beloved,
that you thus adjure us?
10My beloved is all radiant and ruddy,
distinguished among ten thousand.
11His head is the finest gold;
his locks are wavy,
black as a raven.
12His eyes are like doves
beside springs of water,
bathed in milk,
13His cheeks are like beds of spices,
His lips are lilies,
distilling liquid myrrh.
14His arms are rounded gold,
set with jewels.
His body is ivory work,
encrusted with sapphires.
15His legs are alabaster columns,
set upon bases of gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon,
choice as the cedars.
16His speech is most sweet,
and he is altogether desirable.
This is my beloved and this is my friend,
O daughters of Jerusalem.
6Whither has your beloved gone,
Whither has your beloved turned,
that we may seek him with you?
2My beloved has gone down to his garden,
to the beds of spices,
to pasture his flock in the gardens,
and to gather lilies.
3I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine;
he pastures his flock among the lilies.