Marc Chagall’s Le Cantique des Cantiques II

Exploring the interplay of text and painting, Hannah Gardiner offers an alternative reading of the Song of Songs through Marc Chagall’s painting Le Cantique des Cantiques II.

During his lifetime, the Jewish artist Marc Chagall offered the world hundreds of visual representations of the Bible in the form of etchings, gouaches, engravings, and oil paintings, ranging from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden to Christ’s crucifixion. Chagall’s five-canvas interpretation of the Song of Songs, Le Cantique des Cantiques, is outstanding for its wistful and carnal representation of the Hebrew love song. The second canvas in the series, Le Cantique des Cantiques II, pictured here, has been thought to refer to a variety of scenes from the Song. Cheryl Exum refers to this song canvas as contemplating Song 5.2: ‘I was sleeping but my heart was awake. Listen! My lover is knocking!’[1], which she reads as “a verse that blurs distinctions between sleep and wakefulness’.[2] M.C. Koch reads the scene as depicting Song 2.3: ‘[a]s an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste’.[3] Both these verses and more, as I suggest below, are indeed brought to mind through this one painting. This pluralistic representation is part of the delight of Chagall’s work, which invites viewers to engage with the lovers across the Song.

Chagall’s painting does not simply evoke the Song by its title and scenes. Le Cantique des Cantiques II embodies scripture by visually mirroring the literary form of the Song. The movement of the Song is a whirlwind from scene to scene across its montaged chapters. The lovers move between the garden, the pasture, the city, and the vineyard. The movements between these scenes are mirrored in Chagall’s painting not sequentially, but by the embodied viewer’s eyes that look from one image to the next across the canvas. The lovers appear in multiple places at once. The woman appears at once beneath and within the tree; the man at once seeking his beloved within the leaves of the tree and seemingly embodied as a hand outstretched within the city that appears like the beloved reaching to put ‘his hand to the latch’.[4]The flying, birdlike creature playing music represents David and the ability of his music to ‘evoke that of birds and angels’.[5] In both the Song and in Chagall’s painting, there is a blurred sense for the reader and viewer of never quite knowing where you are within the work. The effect of these spatial disorientations is sensual. It imitates the blurred boundaries between one’s body and the body of one’s beloved in the act of making love, the central act that is, paradoxically, hidden and revealed by allegory in the Song. Chagall’s visual representation is remarkable in its ability to recreate this motif.

Although the painting’s simultaneous montage tugs at the viewer’s attention, the focal point of the work is, undoubtedly, the reclining nude woman. She lays elongated within what appears not only like a tree, but like a magenta womb enclosing a rose womb. The tree slants towards the left and holds the woman’s naked body within the tree’s crown. Just beneath the foliage is the trunk–resembling a birth canal–which connects these two worlds. Knowing that the Song is often read as a second Edenic garden, the significance of this central womb-like tree suggests a theologically rich return to Genesis, to the tree of life, and to what this painting seems to suggest as an equation of the womb of life to this tree of life. Attention to the womb as a central aspect of this work is emphasized further by the most striking form of Chagall’s painting: its colour. The red hues of the painting can be seen as being inspired by nature and food imagery within the Song, such as the rose of Sharon, apples, wine, grapes, and pomegranates, which are all mentioned at various points in the Song. Chagall’s painting, too, invites this hue-association back to the womb and its shared, red colour. The Song’s insistent allegorical pairing of the mouth in its eating and the sexual organs in their love making is bridged in the painting by colour as a natural, bodily association.

Like the Song, my interpretation of Chagall’s work relies on allegorical imagination as symbolized by the tree of life and literalized by the womb. When looking at Le Cantique des Cantiques II, we see that the woman is positioned as the fruit of the womb. However, her presence within the womb with her beloved dually appeals to her future potential as bearer of the fruit of the womb, in other words, as the tree of life. The appearance of the woman at the trunk of the tree may witness to this future potential, but it could simultaneously appeal to reproduction of the past: ‘[u]nder the apple tree I awakened you. There your mother was in labour with you; there she who bore you was in labour’.[6] Here, the woman of the Song speaks to her beloved, insisting upon her lucid presence during his labour, which seems in the Song an impossibility. A viewer of Chagall’s womb can nonetheless draw upon the Song to see how the painting pictures this interconnected reality by alluding to the past, present, and future sexualities to which the lovers stand in relation. Chagall’s womb of life emphasizes the bodily relationship the lovers share while connecting the notion of the tree of life and the fruit of the womb in one image.

The Song is commonly read in relationship to Christ as an allegory between Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as His Bride; but I see in Chagall’s painting an alternate, earthier offering to this allegorical vision, one that is dependent on Christ’s status as the tree of life in Genesis and the fruit of Mary’s womb in the Lukan Annunciation. In Chagall’s painting, the lovers at once have the capacity to create new life within the tree of life and to realize themselves as having been created. All of this is done not parallel to, but within God. An alternative allegorical vision of the Song seems to me to call us not only towards a union with Christ, but towards an imitation of Him. To see ourselves as created [fruit] and having the potential to create [tree] both literally and symbolically, we see that this imitation of Christ and our connection to Him is bodily. Such an allegorical vision connects us directly to the natural world in its reproductive capacities that we bear witness to in daily life by eating its fruit as we do by making love. Chagall’s picture of the Song Le Cantique des Cantiques II invites us to contemplate the beauty of what it might mean for us to live towards this imagination into the new creation.

[1] Song of Songs, 5:2, Cheryl Exum’s translation, https://thevcs.org/seek-and-you-shall-find/dream-love?first=5216.

[2] Cheryl Exum, ‘A Dream of Love’, The Visual Commentary on Scripture, accessed 07 October, 2022, https://thevcs.org/seek-and-you-shall-find/dream-love?first=5216.

[3] M.C. Koch, ‘The Song of Songs and Reciprocal Desire: Reading Judaic Traditions of Male Embodiment in Chagall’s Paintings of Lovers’, in Body Politics: Rethinking Gender and Masculinity, eds. Tanmoy Baghira and Ananya Mukerjee (Delhi: Akhand Publishing House), 2021.

[4] Song of Songs, 5:4, English Standard Version Bible.

[5] Le Cantique des Cantiques II, Musées Nationaux Alpes-Maritimes, accessed 04 October, 2022, https://musees-nationaux-alpesmaritimes.fr/chagall/collection/objet/le-cantique-des-cantiques-ii.

[6] Song of Songs, 8:5.

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