Marc Chagall (French, b. Belorussia, 1887-1985)
Moses Receives the Ten Commandments, from The Story of the Exodus suite, 1966
- Lithograph on paper
- 18 3/8 x 13 1/2 in. (46.6 x 34.3 cm)
- The Jewish Museum, New York
- Gift of Herman and Sietske Turndorf, 1982-231.14
- © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Not on view
Chagall’s “Story of Exodus” series is based on a set of etchings he created for a 1956 Bible.
In the part of the Exodus story depicted here, the Israelites have left Egypt and have arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai, where they are preparing to receive the Ten Commandments from G-d. The Book of Exodus records what happens next:
- And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and the voice of a horn growing loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet G-d; and they stood at the bottom part of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the voice of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and G-d answered him by a voice. And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mount; and Moses went up. (Exodus 19:16-20)
Atop the mountain, Moses receives the Ten Commandments and a series of other laws to impart to the people. These laws include directions for building the Tabernacle (the desert sanctuary) and instructions for the Levites, who will perform the religious rituals on behalf of the people.
Moses Receives the Ten Commandments exhibits many elements of Chagall’s signature style and personal symbolism.
Chagall depicts his internal world—the world as he feels it. The result is a work of art that is dreamlike. The figures float in space, often twisting and turning in all directions. The scale of figures does not follow the rules of traditional perspective. Moses, for example, appears larger than any of the other figures in this work, reflecting his primary importance in the narrative, rather than his relative physical location in space. Animals and humans inhabit a common realm.
The colors are rich and expressive. Moses’ face, for example, is half green. The Tablets gleam with the white light of the divine while the Israelites range from yellow to green to brown. Chagall once wrote, “If every life drifts ineluctably toward its end, we must color ours, while it lasts, with our own colors of love and hope” (The Biblical Message of Marc Chagall, p. 16).
Chagall’s retelling of the Exodus narrative is more associative than linear. Floating above Moses, for example, is a glowing menorah and a figure in purple (who may be Moses’ brother Aaron). These may be references to the laws of the priesthood, which Moses received on Mount Sinai along with the Ten Commandments.
The artist once wrote, “Since childhood the Bible has fascinated me. I have always thought of it as the greatest source of poetry of all time. I have continued to seek out its reflection in life and in art. The Bible is like a musical vibration of nature, and I have tried to communicate that secret” (The Biblical Message of Marc Chagall, p. 15).
Chagall, Marc. The Biblical Message of Marc Chagall. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1972.
Provoyeur, Pierre. Marc Chagall: Biblical Interpretations. New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, 1983.
Rosensaft, Jean Bloch. Chagall and the Bible. New York: Universe Books, 1987.
Jewish Virtual Library
William Bennett Gallery