Fiddlers, Donkeys and More: Exploring the Symbolism Behind Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall notoriously denied ever intentionally using symbolism in his art; however, many experts and admirers have sought to attribute meaning to his popular motifs. In this article, we explore some of the main interpretations.

14 June, 2022

“If a symbol should be discovered in a painting of mine, it was not my intention. It is a result I did not seek. It is something that may be found afterwards, and which can be interpreted according to taste.” — Marc Chagall In ‘Marc Chagall 1887-1985: Painting As Poetry’ by Ingo F. Walther, Rainer Metzger, p. 78 after 1930, as cited in Quotepark

Although Belorussian-born French modern artist Marc Chagall may have claimed to not have thought of symbolism when creating his work, many experts and admirers have sought to read meaning in the repeated motifs he was known to bring to life. In this article, we seek to decipher some of his most popular themes. 

Born into a family that adhered to Hasidic Judaism, which means that the graphic representation of anything created by God was forbidden in his household, it comes as no surprise that much of his artwork touched upon his Jewish heritage, including such symbols of pious Judaism as the candlestick, as well as his memories of his hometown, Vitebsk, and its culture. The symbol of the fiddler is key here, as it often appears in his portrayals of Vitebsk, where the fiddler was known to make music for the crossroads of life (births, weddings, deaths). The herring is also a key symbol used to represent his family, particularly his father, who worked at a herring factory.

‘Snow, Winter in Vitebsk’, 1911

Perhaps due to the lack of visual representation of it during his childhood, Chagall was greatly interested in exploring religion and the Bible in his works. One of Chagall’s most interpreted works is the ‘White Crucifixion’ (1938), which includes an abundance of symbolism pertaining to a denunciation of the Stalin regime, the Nazi Holocaust and the overall oppression of Jews. In this stunning painting, Chagall stressed the Jewish identity of Jesus in several ways, including the fact that he “replaced the loincloth with a prayer shawl, his crown of thorns with a headcloth, and the mourning angels that customarily surround him with three biblical patriarchs and a matriarch, clad in traditional Jewish garb” (Art Institute Chicago, ‘White Crucifixion’). On the left, we can see a village burning, reminding us of Vitebsk, with refugees fleeing via boat, and three figures, one of whom is clutching a Torah, fleeing on foot. On the right, a synagogue is depicted burning. By associating martyred Jesus with prosecuted Jews and the Crucifixion with the contemporary events of Nazi control, Chagall is identifying the Nazis with Jesus’ tormentors and warning against the moral implications of their actions. 

‘White crucifixion’, 1938

Like many artists of his time, Chagall was fascinated by the circus. Many of his works depict jugglers, clowns, equestrians and other circus-related performers. It is believed that such representations stood for Chagall’s view of creativity in man and also served as a ‘personal mythology’ for his choice to pursue an art career. He largely saw his colourful depictions of these spectacles as a vivid metaphor for the unorthodox life he had decided to lead as an artist.

‘The Blue Circus’, 1950, courtesy of Tate, London
‘These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have made themselves at home in my visions. Why? Why am I so touched by their make-up and their grimaces? With them I can move towards new horizons.’ (As cited in Christie’s '"A circus is disturbing. It is profound’ — The fantasy worlds of Marc Chagall’s 'Le Cirque'")

As the above work shows, Chagall’s paintings were also dominated by the colour blue. He adored the coolness of the colour blue, as well as its dreamlike quality. He even created his own shade of blue, which became known as ‘Chagall blue’. 

Moreover, Chagall’s love of the circus ties in with another of his popular motifs, the horse. Horses have usually been associated with freedom. They can be observed in key works by Chagall, including ‘The Flying Carriage’ and his Paris Opera ceiling. Of note, the horse was often used by Chagall to represent himself. Often, he liked to depict himself either alone or surrounded by other characters.