Commissioned by Ambroise Vollard in 1930, Chagall spent the next eight years etching the plates for La Bible. Printing of the plates took place after World War II, first in Maurice Potin’s and Raymond Hassen’s studios (published in 1956). The copper plates were subsequently cancelled and given to the Musee National Message Biblique in Nice by Marc and Vava Chagall.
It is believed by many that the major significance that the Bible was to play in Chagall’s work was rooted in the experience of his early childhood in Russia. Franz Meyer, Chagall’s biographer, has written in Marc Chagall—The Graphic Works:
“Chagall’s ties with the Bible are very deep indeed; the forms that people its (the Bible’s) world are a part of his own inner life, part of the living Jewish heritage, and thus are archetypes of a greater, more intensive world.”
Chagall chose the scenes he illustrated for the commissioned work, The Bible, very carefully. His selectiveness had a great deal to do with his own spirituality and the world around him. He wanted to portray the struggles and triumphs of strong Jewish figures from a divine world that he considered just as real as the secular world. Considering the persecution of the Jewish faith at the time he created these etchings, it gives special meaning to this work in the context of history.
Of the Bible, this is what the Chagall said, "Ever since my earliest youth, I have been fascinated with the Bible. I have always believed…that it is the greatest source of poetry of all time…I have sought its reflection in life and art. The Bible is life, an echo of nature, and this is the secret I have endeavored to transmit."
Between 1931 and 1939 Chagall created 105 etchings depicting the Bible. He worked in the Atelier of Maurice Potin, where 66 of the etchings were made between 1931 and 1939. The remaining 39 were completed between 1952 and 1956 in the Atelier of Raymond Haasen.
Meyer Schapiro, noted art historian, made the observation that Chagall was the ideal artist to have undertaken the task. "He has represented themes of an older tradition not in a spirit of curiosity or artifice, but with noble devotion. Although these etchings are marvels in patience, scrupulous craftsmanship…In almost every image we experience the precise note of his emotion, his awe or sadness or joy, which is voiced in the melody of shapes and the tonal scale peculiar to each conception. If we had nothing of Chagall but his Bible, he would be for us a great modern artist."