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  • Writer's picturePaul G. Chandler

A VISUAL MEDITATION - "Hope for the cut down tree"

By Paul G. Chandler - June 23, 2024

My daughter, of whom I am inestimably proud, has devoted her life to assisting young people with profound intellectual and physical disabilities. Her vocational calling has sensitized me all the more to those with special needs. Here in the Chicago area, where I live, my attention was recently drawn to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a remarkable institution that specializes in rehabilitation for adults and children with the most severe and complex disabilities. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that adjacent to their chapel, under glass, is a magnificent tapestry by the 20th century Belorussian-born French artist Marc Chagall, known as The Chagall Tapestry. The tapestry is titled “Job,” after the biblical figure, who endured tremendous suffering and loss. The tapestry is huge, measuring 11.5 feet wide and 13 feet high. In it Chagall is depicting a beautiful verse from the Book of Job, that is written on the back of the piece;


“For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again and that its shoots will not cease.” (14:7)

Marc Chagall, The Chagall Tapestry, "Job," 1985

The story of Job one of the most well-known of ancient Middle Eastern tales. It is a poetic work of literature that scholars believe was written between the 7th and 3rd centuries BCE. This epic story, which has had a profound influence in Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze faith traditions, closely resembles other ancient texts, that are Babylonian, Sumerian and Egyptian. Though found in the Hebrew Bible, in the story, Job is not Jewish, and hence there are many countries that claim him. In Palestinian folk tradition Job's place of suffering is Al-Joura, a village outside the town of Al Majdal, in Palestine. In Turkey, Job is said to have lived in Sanliurfa (Urfa). There is also a tomb of Job in Jabal Qara outside the city of Salalah in Southern Oman. I have even visited a tomb said to be Job’s among the Druze community in Lebanon’s El-Chouf mountain district.


The compelling story of Job is written in the genre of early narrative poetry. In this poem, Job is presented as someone who went through more personal life tragedy, disappointments, and discouragements, than anyone else. Hence, Job is often seen as the patron saint of suffering.


In the story of Job, we read “The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind…” (38:1). Job heard a Voice amidst the turbulence in his life, during a time of profound despair. At the outset of the story, Job is presented as a truly good person. Yet, in the story he becomes a pawn in a cruel game, brought upon him in order to test his very character. He ends up losing his children, occupation, health, all he owned, and even his supportive community. As a result, he underwent intense physical, emotion and spiritual distress. Those close to him tell him he should curse his very existence. When reading this poetic tale, one wonders how much one person can really endure?


Many artists over the centuries have tried to depict the suffering of Job on canvas. Among them, an artist I feel captures Job’s suffering most movingly is Marc Chagall. Job was among Chagall's favorite religious figures, and his moving portrayals of Job lead one to empathize deeply with his plight. Chagall painted Job before 1917 during his academic period in Russia, and again after returning to France during his later years.


The Chagall Tapestry in Chicago is an inspiring artwork that poignantly brings Job’s experience to life. It was Chagall’s last-commissioned work, dying before its weaving was complete. It may have been his only work created with an entirely “therapeutic” purpose in mind, as he did it solely for those who have lost some important ability. This is why Chagall saturated the tapestry with a special blue, which to him symbolized the hope of renewal. On accepting this special commission, Chagall said, “Now, I am a doctor.”


In the tapestry, Job is depicted on the right side. Behind him is his wife, dressed in red, and below him are his three friends. There is much of the tapestry that speaks to Chagall’s personal story of faith. In the lower right and left corners there are individuals reading the scriptures. In the upper-left corner is a depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, which represented for Chagall, the suffering of humanity. In the upper-right corner is a depiction of the Holy City of Jerusalem, a focus point for the Abrahamic faiths, as Chagall understood that people experiencing loss often rely on their faith to help them navigate through. In the upper-left side, there is a group of people. Among them, one can visualize various aids used by those with functional impairments, such as a wheelchair, canes, braces and prostheses.

It is clear Chagall was touched deeply by the story of Job. Two other works by Chagall illustrate the impact of the story of Job on him. One is a lithograph titled, “Job in Despair.” In it we see a distressed Job, who has experienced profound loss and hardship. In the graphic, darkness surrounds him, and Job appears anxious and despondent, as he rests his head on his hand.


However, the inspiration in all of Chagall’s works on Job is that the artist never leaves him without hope. In this lithograph, we see a green angel in the upper left-hand corner of the painting, indicating the continued presence of God in the midst of the tragedy he is experiencing.

Chagall’s sense of divine hope is again movingly reflected in another work titled “Job Praying,” that hangs in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia. In it, Chagall depicts a truly despairing Job praying on his knees to God for relief from his suffering. Here, the selection of lucid green represented hope to Chagall, as the color is often seen as symbolizing new life.


For many viewers, this work depicts the promise of divine hope. In some ways, it is a deeply personal work of art, as it summarizes Chagall's own life, having undergone great hardship in numerous ways. Yet, in the end, Chagall saw hope realized. In “Job Praying,” Chagall is attempting to infer that Job is being reminded of the goodness of his beautiful Creator. Chagall may even be portraying the very moment in the story where Job is told by God that he will be given back his dignity, health and belongings.

This sense of hope in the midst of hardship is highlighted in The Chagall Tapestry as well, where we see the angel Gabriel, in the upper middle section, bringing good news to Job.

In visually reflecting on the story of Job, Chagall was able to see an invisible undercurrent of hope, due to the very nature of the Creator. In this sense, the poetic story of Job can be seen through the lens of finding and maintaining hope in the midst of the worst that life can throw at us. 


All the hardship and anguish that Job experienced throughout the story needs to be seen in the context of Job’s profound exclamation right in the middle of the poem: “I know that my redeemer lives.” Job never gave up his belief that his Creator was ultimately one who would come to his rescue and provide restoration, giving him new life. In the story, Job, gets angry and questions God…over and over again. Yet, he was also able to maintain a belief in the inherent goodness of his Creator.


Recently, due to circumstances in my own life, people experiencing deep discouragement and having a sense of hopelessness have introduced themselves to me. These new friendships have led me to think again about Job’s plight, and his ability to say with the utmost confidence, “I know my redeemer lives.” The word “know” does not mean a cognitive, rational understanding. Rather it is infers an experiential and existential knowledge. It is a knowledge based on previous experience. In other words, “I am confident that my redeemer lives…because that has been my personal experience.”


Chagall, like Job, experienced that his Creator is all about reversals – reversing the situation people find themselves in, regardless of the hardships, and providing new beginnings. This is the reason that in the story of Job, the concluding section of the poetic narrative has a “happily-ever-after” ending. In the literary genre in which this story was written, this sort of over-the-top dramatic ending is employed to communicate something very strongly. After all the pain Job experienced, in time he can say with the utmost confidence; “I know that you (God) can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”


I have been encouraged over the years by a moving prayer written by the late Russian novelist and writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He had suffered greatly, having spent eight years in Stalin’s Gulag. In 1970, while still in Russia, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and wasn't allowed to attend the ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. So, he sent his address by mail, to be read by someone else. And he closed it with this beautiful personal prayer.

How easy it is to live with You, O Lord

How easy to believe in You.

When my spirit is overwhelmed within me,

When even the keenest see no further than the night.


And know not what to do tomorrow,

You bestow on me the certitude

That you exist and are mindful of me,

That all the paths of righteousness are not barred.


As I ascend into the hill of earthly glory,

I turn back and gaze, astonished, on the road

That led me here beyond despair. . .

Artworks by Marc Chagall:

-Marc Chagall, The Chagall Tapestry, "Job," 1985

-Marc Chagall, "Job in Despair," 1960, lithograph

-Marc Chagall, "Job Praying," 1960, lithograph


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