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Marc Chagall and Mark Rothko: Two Distinct Approaches to Jewish Religious Paintings

Marc Chagall and Mark Rothko: Two Distinct Approaches to Jewish Religious Paintings

Like the artwork of Menucha Page, numerous masterpieces of modern art have been inspired by Jewish religious traditions. Renowned artists such as Marc Chagall  found inspiration in Judaic spiritual traditions. Among the most outstanding examples, the symbolic artwork of Marc Chagall incorporating fiddlers on the roof and angels exemplify the vast influence of Jewish spirituality and traditional Jewish paintings on modern art.

Chagall’s Shtetl

Born in 1887, Marc Chagall grew up in the small village of Vitebsk, White Russia, in modern day Belarus. Anti-religious Marxist ideas and anti-Semitism were yet to begin in Russia, and Chagall’s community could openly practice Judaic rituals and customs. The young artist spent his early days surrounded by the traditions of Hasidism. Chagall’s father, a devout man, attended the synagogue every morning at dawn before going to work in his shop. For the length of Marc Chagall’s career, the artist populated his paintings with symbols of everyday life which highlighted his great appreciation for the beautiful, Jewish customs of his childhood.

Influence of Medieval Manuscripts

Medieval Jewish manuscripts included colorful, illuminated paintings. Highly decorative and often gilded with real gold, medieval manuscript illustrations also served the purpose of explaining sacred stories to a largely illiterate, rural population.

The influence of medieval illuminations permeates Marc Chagall’s artwork. Characteristic Chagall paintings, such as “La Maree” of 1912, burst with primary colors and a predominance of bright blue. Before the invention of synthetic pigments, blue paint had to be made from rare minerals. The color was in high demand by rich, medieval patrons. Chagall outlines his figures in black paint keeping with the graphic style of an illuminated text. Undoubtedly, Chagall saw many examples of Medieval religious paintings and manuscripts in the museums of Paris when he moved to the city in 1910 to study art.

Chagall’s figures and scenes lack perspective harking back to pre-Renaissance times. The paintings of Chagall show the artist’s deliberate lack of foreshortening in homage to early Jewish Paintings. Chagall’s lack of perspective in his paintings was a conscious choice rather than a lack of skill. He had studied art formally in St. Petersburg, and at one point even helped found an art school.

Biblical Allegories and Dura Europos

In addition to his pastoral scenes depicting village life, Chagall painted Biblical themes. In 1932, while Chagall was deeply engaged in making illustrations for the Bible, an astonishing series of Jewish religious paintings were uncovered during the excavation of an ancient synagogue in Syria. Workers at Dura Europos, one of the earliest known synagogues, revealed a series of Jewish religious frescoes that were painted between 244-256 CE. News of this archaeological find shocked the art world who largely subscribed to the myth that art was prohibited in the Jewish faith. Chagall would certainly have heard the news of the important murals. Chagall’s paintings of Moses show several parallels to the Jewish religious paintings found at Dura Europos. For example, instead of being in proportion, the important figures are larger than figures of lesser importance. 

Unveiled on February 6, 1962, Marc Chagall’s stained-glass windows at the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem depict the Twelve Sons of Jacob. A common theme in Jewish religious art, the Twelve Sons of Jacob are the forefathers of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Chagall’s Biblical allegories in stained glass remain among the most outstanding masterpieces of Jewish art.

In contrast to Chagall’s symbolic, Biblical allegories and his depictions of Jewish life, Rothko’s paintings aim to convey the emotions he felt toward his spirituality through the shimmering hues of his color fields.

Rothko’s Early Years

Mark Rothko was born in 1903 in the town of Daugavpils, Letonia. Unlike Chagall’s shtetl where residents openly observed Jewish traditions, Mark Rothko grew up in an environment where it was dangerous to express his Jewish heritage. Growing anti-Semitism in Russia provoked Rothko’s father to raise his family with beliefs that swung between Marxist anti-religion and Orthodox Judaism. In 1913, when the artist was only ten, Rothko’s family migrated to the United States to search for a freer life. 

Throughout his career, Rothko would see-saw between strict secular beliefs and Jewish religious philosophy. The death of Rothko’s father a few months after moving to the States led the artist to faithfully attend the synagogue searching for meaning. After a year, however, Rothko abandoned his faith. The artist’s tendency to alternately embrace and reject religion undoubtedly sprung from a cognitive dissonance between his Jewish heritage and the anti-Semitic nature of his times.

Father of Color Field Painting

Perhaps Rothko’s restrictive upbringing led him to eschew overt representations of his Jewish spirituality. With the innovation of color field painting, Rothko seems to have finally made peace with his troubled relationship with religion. His emotional paintings convey Rothko’s understanding and deep appreciation of the more esoteric notions of the Jewish faith.

The fearful environment of the artist’s childhood, the turmoil of his private life, and the public’s misunderstanding of his work eventually took a toll on Rothko’s psyche. Sadly, Mark Rothko committed suicide in February of 1970 at the age of 66.

Although both artists took inspiration from their Jewish heritage, Marc Chagall and Mark Rothko chose vastly different approaches to expressing their spiritual inclinations. Chagall painted nostalgic representations of his happy childhood in Russia. Rothko expresses his Jewish spirituality with non-representational Color Field Paintings that the uninitiated often mistake for pure aesthetics. 

Not unlike Marc Chagall, Menucha Page aims to express her spirituality and beloved Jewish tradition through her artwork. Menucha combines themes from the Torah with contemporary fine art techniques and mixed media.


Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Art Story

Glueck, Grace (11 October 2016). “A Newish Biography of Mark Rothko” 


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