I disagree with Harshav on several counts. First, there’s no reason to assume that the people in the shul are actually praying at the moment that Chagall captures them, so it’s specious to say the mood is disinterest and apathy because the seated figures in the top left corner don’t seem to be paying attention. Perhaps the man at the bimah has no Torah scroll because he’s either at a different point in his prayers than reading the Torah, or perhaps he’s not praying at all. And the man at the podium holds his hands up to his mouth—much like another figure on the right—so one wonders how Harshav knows that the man is “embarrassed and lost.” Maybe he’s just stroking his beard.
When we approach the two other Sotheby’s shuls—the 1931 Interior of the Ashkenazi Ha’ari Synagogue, Safed (lot 13) and the 1935 Synagogue in Vilna, the ‘Kloyz’ of the Vilna Gaon (lot 15)—it’s important to be careful about projecting too much of what we know about Chagall onto the works, which is why I acknowledge the speculative interpretation of the blue door.
The Tzefat-based synagogue represented in Lot 13—that of Rav Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572), the “Ari”—may be familiar to some readers, with its iconic vine- and grape-encrusted pillars on the ark. Here Chagall shows a unique perspective of the shul. Rather than showing the bimah, like he does in Lot 14, Chagall depicts the Aron in profile. The shul looks a bit cluttered and chaotic—like a parking lot of benches and study lecterns. Two seated men either engage in study or prayer, but they are dwarfed by the enormity of the shul interior. Yet, however quiet and cluttered the shul looks, Chagall achieves a handsome balance between the white (with touches of blue and ochre) solemn columns and vaulted ceiling and the colorful and organic details on the Aron. The painting is surely not about a clash between Classical architecture and Jewish decorative arts, but if the work were a metaphor for that divide, one cannot help but think that Chagall seemed more interested in the Aron as a ritual object than he was with the shul’s architecture.
Lot 15 shows a view of a shul that plants the viewer much closer to the Aron than do the other two Sotheby’s paintings. Instead of hovering above the ground level, the viewer is cast looking up at the Aron. Here, Chagall has paid more attention to the interplay of light and shadow than in the other works, and the dabs of white light evoke the work of French landscape painter Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875).
According to Sotheby’s, a Kloyz is a “private synagogue and study hall of a great Rabbinic leader.” The shul was destroyed in World War II, and none of the “few rare photographs” of the structure show the Aron, according to Sotheby’s, and “Only close associates who exemplified Torah learning and piety were invited to pray and study in the Rabbi’s ‘Kloyz.’”
Chagall also visited Vilna in 1935, and Sotheby’s includes a translation of the Yiddish poem that he wrote about the Great Vilna Synagogue. “The old shul, the old street/ I painted them just yesteryear./ Now smoke rises there, and ash/ And the parokhet is lost./ Where are your Torah scrolls?/ The lamps, menorahs, chandeliers?/ The air, generations filled with their breath?/ It evaporated in the sky,” begins the poem. “Trembling, I put the color,/ The green color of the Ark of the Covenant./ I bowed in tears,/ Alone in the shul – a last witness.”
Even if Chagall didn’t worship in shul regularly, the aspect of “last witness” clearly comes through in his paintings. Sotheby’s also has letters in which Chagall suggested he wanted to buy the three paintings back from Jack Cottin, but “the request was poignantly but firmly declined.”
It’s clear that Chagall was deeply affected by the shuls, but it’s not necessarily correct to refer to these paintings as rare. Sure Chagall didn’t paint a lot of shuls, but how many do we expect him to have painted? In a sense, Rembrandt rarely painted trees, Michelangelo rarely added seascapes to his repertoire, and Monet rarely painted portraits. It’s far more productive to look at how the paintings fit (or don’t) into Chagall’s larger body of work than it is to focus on their rarity. That’s fine for a release promoting the Sotheby’s sale, but reporters should give the paintings the deeper consideration they deserve.