Marc Chagall’s “Sacrifice of Isaac” is part of a postwar series of works originally designed for an interfaith chapel that was to be erected in the abandoned Chapelle du Calvaire in Vence, France. Chagall seems to depict the subject in a traditional form: The angel stops Abraham from killing Isaac, who lies passively on the altar, one eye closed as in death, the other awake both to the intended sacrifice and to the last minute reprieve. To the left, a lamb-like ram stands behind a tree; Sarah appears further to the left, in accordance with the legend in the midrash (a genre of rabbinic literature that includes homilies and commentaries on the Bible) that the devil showed her the events taking place on Moriah, thus causing her death.

At upper left, the angel appears a second time, as in the Bible (Genesis 22:15–18), to reveal the future of Abraham’s descendants. However, they are not shown enjoying God’s blessing as the text suggests. Instead, at upper right, Jesus carries the cross, surrounded by mourning women who echo Sarah’s presence on Moriah. Jesus is followed by a bearded shtetl—a Jew from a small, Eastern European town—who carries a Torah scroll or book instead of a cross. Here Chagall operates on two levels of meaning. He depicts the Christian view of the sacrifice of Isaac as a prefiguration of the Crucifixion, creating an appropriate image for an interfaith chapel by linking themes that combine sacrifice with the strongest manifestations of faith of each religion. On the other hand, Chagall often used the Crucifixion as a symbol of Jewish martyrdom in the Holocaust (as in …The White Crucifixion” of 1938). The Jew following Jesus is then, like him, a victim who will perish for his faith.

Jews have used the sacrifice of Isaac as a verbal image of their martyrdoms. However, the visual image in which the angel stops the sacrifice could not adequately express their sufferings. To add to the sacrifice of Isaac a dimension of future martyrdom—culminating in the Holocaust—Chagall inserted a suggestion of the Crucifixion and the Eastern European Jew who perished, victims who were not spared. Despite the dark events depicted in this work, the primary feeling in it remains one of absolute faith leading to salvation.

For the use of the sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion in a Holocaust context, see Ziva Amishai-Maisels, Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts (Oxford: Pergamon, 1993), pp. 167–172, 178–197.