As I came out of a deep meditation recently, I looked up and stared at the painting hanging on the wall across the room from me. The painting – a rather large print of Marc Chagall’s I and the Village – had been hanging there for a while but I had previously given it little thought. Today however, I was drawn into its symbols and began sensing my own personal conclusions about the spiritual meaning of the painting. It was a mystical moment for me. More on that in a moment.
My wife, Mary, fell in love with this picture many years ago because she felt it had great spiritual significance. I always found it interesting and have looked at it many times, but I’m not one who spends much time interpreting art and had never really considered what it “meant”. The picture had hung in Mary’s office until recently when it was relocated to our living room where I frequently meditate. I really knew nothing about Chagall nor this painting as I recently contemplated it. I did not even know the painting’s name until I did a bit of research in writing this article.
Chagall, a Russian French artist, painted I and the Village in 1911. According to Wikipedia, one art critic considered Chagall as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century”. This article also says that Chagall “saw his work as ‘not the dream of one people but of all humanity'”. Later it cites Chagall as seeing the Old Testament of the Bible as a “human story,… Not with the creation of the cosmos but with the creation of man, and his figures of Angels are rhymed or combined with human ones”. On the website “Distorted”, Chagall is quoted as denying his work to be surreal stating, “the entire world within us is reality.” Interesting.
A reproduction of I and the Village accompanies this article. Most of its interpretation that I found online saw the painting as being representative of Chagall’s youth, depicting his early village life. Some see the painting is representing Chagall’s sense of community – both at the village level and the cosmic level. Much is made of the interplay between man and animal – an obvious point given the two heads, one horse – one human, which dominate the painting. Much is also made of the large circle, as well as other smaller circles, which many see as representative of the orbits of the earth around the sun and the moon around the earth. There is more artistic interpretation out on the Internet if you are interested.
However, what I saw recently as I came out of my meditation was not reflected in any of my online research. Perhaps I was looking for “expert” confirmation on what I saw! Not finding it, I feel compelled to note that what follows is simply what came to me. I don’t claim to be an art expert. My interpretation of I and the Village most likely says more about me and my beliefs that anything.
Disclaimers voiced, let’s consider the spiritual meaning I see in the painting.
To me, this picture is about our spiritual evolution. At the bottom of the painting, one sees the insertion of some spiritual force into the world of form. Consider it the “hand of God” or what is frequently termed “involution” – God or spirit “involving itself” into the material world. The hand is holding a sprig – or perhaps “the tree of life”.
There is a large circle which dominates the painting – one might consider that the circle represents the arc of worldly experience moving through time. Consider the circle going clockwise from the bottom. There we notice that the tree of life is spreading its seeds. The seeds immediately move into a smaller circle divided into red and white, a circle that reminds me much of a yin-yang symbol – both representing a sense of duality. That is, it is representative of our moving through an experience where we are contrasting one thing against another – good versus evil, right versus wrong, things we like versus things we don’t like and so on. Similar to many interpretations of “the fall”, humanity was birthed out of the unity of Spirit but fell into the world where our remembrance of this unity is lost and all we can see is separation – contrast – duality.
As we continue clockwise around the circle, we move through our spiritual evolution. Most of the painting depicts our worldly journey. Early agrarian life is shown through the milking of the cow and the man with the sickle. The rise of towns and villages – as well as religion – is shown at the top of the painting.
A playful sense of “unity within the duality” is reflected by the man and the woman at the top of the painting – they are reversed much like a yin-yang symbol – man and woman being opposite expressions of a unifying oneness. Again, he carries a sickle representative of work while she plays a musical instrument – work and play – more of our experience of what appears to be opposites but at a deeper level are unified. This same message of unity within duality is also given with the reversal of the direction of the houses.
As we continue around the circle, we leave this experience of opposites and find the prominent human figure looking eye to eye with the large horse’s head. There is a light line connecting their gaze to one another. Much as the eyes are considered to be the “window to the soul”, this connection gained by the gazing from man to horse appears in my opinion to represent the evolution of our conscious awareness towards our sense of unity with the world. The consciousness of the man is connecting with the consciousness of the horse and through that sense is recognizing that they are one.
As we continue further clockwise around the circle, we return home to the source, to spirit. This complete clockwise journey has taken us away from our original sense of unity with spirit out into a world where we experience duality. We move through this illusion of separation and eventually return home in our consciousness to the source from which we originated. In my view, Chagall was picturing the involution-evolution spiritual journey in which we find ourselves.
Is this consciously what Chagall meant by his painting? I certainly don’t know. One might consider that he was probably familiar with the Kabbalah, the mystical side of Judaism. Central to the Kabbalah is the tree of life or also called the ten sephirot or 10 emanations – which are 10 ways in which the infinite (or Ein Sof) reveals itself down through physical manifestation. One can certainly see in the Kabbalist tree of life a spiritual evolutionary path downward from spirit (unity) at the top of the tree downward into physical manifestation (separation) and then showing our path back upward to spirit.
Whether this spiritual evolutionary path was part of Chagall’s intent or not with I and the Village ultimately is irrelevant. After all, one of the greatest values of art is for it to draw forth from within us – the ones contemplating the art – what its greater meaning is in our eyes. The experience I felt in my “seeing” the beautiful symbology of the painting was important to me. My recognizing our spiritual journey in the work of Chagall’s painting led to one of those striking “a-ha!” moments within my consciousness. Those personal moments when we feel the interconnectedness of our individual life with something greater is what spirituality is truly about.
My sensing my spiritual meaning of this painting is ultimately about my spiritual path – about the return within my consciousness to the realization that we are all one, that we came from the same source and are returning to that source. Although I hope that my interpretation of Chagall’s painting serves each reader in some way, I don’t want you to simply “accept” my interpretation as “your truth”.
You do not need an intermediary between you and your interpretation of art. More essential is that you draw forth from within you your own experience of the art’s deeper meaning. Nothing can replace your own personal experience. Similarly, you do not need any intermediary between you and your own experience of the divine.
What is your experience? That’s what’s truly important.
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