The Ancestors Families Series, part III of 4 – fine art essay by Inna Rogatchi
Fine Art Analysis by Inna Rogatchi (C)
First published in The Times of Israel, January 2021.
Artistic View: An Accord of Four Types of Spiritual Light
The Ancestors Family series
Michael Rogatchi Contemporary Biblical Art
As central as the Jacob family is in Jewish spiritual life and narrative, as it is in Michael Rogatchi’s series of his contemporary Biblical art works known as Forefathers project.
In the case of Jacob and his family, the artist sees it in two ways: as continuation of the line of the Patriarchs, of which Jacob was the last one; and as of fundamental beginning of the Jewish nation. “We all are children of Jacob”, – Michael says often.
What is interesting is that Michael’s paintings on the Jacob family created in different periods of time during a six years period are all united by the dominating expression in them, light. According to the core of all portrayed characters, that light in Michael’s paintings is different. It represents four different types of spiritual light.
Jacob: the Light of Faith
Reflecting the dual essence of Jacob, as the last of the Patriarchs and the pregenitor of the Jewish people, his Jacob on well-known Jacob portrait ( 2004) is a reflective and thoughtful man as if observing his difficult, turbulent life from a distance of time.
Michael’s own explanation is telling about the interconnection between his artwork and his role model of a Jewish man with a deep precision: “All the way through, the life of Jacob was a chain of miseries, misfortunes and trials. It seems to me that it was the route chosen intentionally by the Creator, to test him. For Jacob was destined to become the Forefather of the entire Jewish people when they became a nation. The painting reflects this enormously difficult journey which Jacob was able to make because of his unconditional belief. In the painting, I wanted to depict the storm which he had survived. I also wanted to show the most difficult, significant moments of his life; the moments which are often seen by a person as if in front of their eyes. That storm is made of such moments that ‘encapsulate’ Jacob as a character. The culmination of that storm in my work is Jacob’s struggle with the angle when he did realise his mission. And this is the key for the painting, as well” ( Michael Rogatchi ©, Forefathers. 2011).
Of all three Patriarchs, Jacob is perhaps the most enduring character although his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham had had to endure their own enormous and unique lots. But Jacob had to overcome appearing barriers repeatedly throughout his life, from the time of his early youth after dramatic switch of identities in front of his not well-seeing father, being sent away from home by his courageous, loving and providential mother ( I personally think that Rebecca had a lot of prophetess qualities in her noble self), until his old age being confronted with terrible blows of believing that he wouldn’t seeing his beloved son Joseph again and suffering, with his entire family, by the devastating famine before being saved from all that by Joseph re-appearing in his life.
In the middle of his life, Jacob had had to fight for his love, to experience a tremendous disappointment being cheated by the close relative, the brother of his mother, Laban, over Jacob’s marriage to his daughters. He had to overcome a huge fear facing his twin Esau at the point of his life when he was responsible not just for himself, but for many children and four wives in front of his brother capable of a lot of harm to be caused to anyone, and especially so to his antithesis Jacob.
Jacob had had to witness the utterly premature death of the love of his life Rachel on the road, without being able to bury her within the land of Israel as he knew everyone expected him to do. He was left to live without the only woman he really loved for the rest of his long life while Rachel passed away so early.
Then he had to withstand the most severe blow being told that his beloved son Joseph had perished. Joseph was 17 at the time. And if all that was not enough, at the late stage of his life, Jacob and his large family had to sustain a severe famine before being saved by Creator sending Joseph back to him.
We often are thinking after reading and returning to Jacob’s story of the life of that almost devastating non-stop trial: how did he sustain it? And why was such a righteous person, such a good man, exposed to it all, the one blow after another? There is a known concept in the Rabbinic commentaries that says that a person is exposed to his or her trials in accordance with that person’s inner capacities of taking it. It is logical to see the point in this, and the life of Jacob is probably the most convincing sample of this line of thinking.
I also think that being the last Jewish Patriarch and the progenitor of Jewish people, Jacob was destined to become an ultimate example of endurance which is the core characteristic of Jewish man and Jewish people in general.
Faith is not a recreation. Faith is work, a hard work, often. It is not just knowledge, or awareness, it is living according to it – and this is not always an easy thing to do. It does require understanding, conviction, and quite a lot of strength to live in that accordance, not merely a willingness to be in an accord with a world-view and norms dictated by the faith. And here, the role of Jacob for Jewish people in all and every generation is the most important one. His role as the one who overcomes the most demanding circumstances in one’s life is not only an exemplary, it is all-assuring for every single Jew in generations.
Michael’s Jacob is thoughtful, he is in the midst of people and events as he was destined to be his whole life. He is also quite firm and decisive in this portrait, as Jewish man has to be. And he is beautiful, as all three Patriarchs were. There is another kind of beauty present, as well. The beauty of life experience is imprinted on Jacob’s reflecting face. There are wrinkles – and wrinkles. The wrinkles on Jacob’s face on Michael’s portrait of him are not only the imprint of his trials. It is also the statement of his wholesomeness.
And that look, that very special look of the man who is not surprised by challenges, but who knows how to meet them. This is the essence of the man who has become the father of Jewish people. Jacob’s endurance is the quite-essence of our genes. Especially if we are able to comprehend its necessity.
The light of Faith created by the artist in this painting is not homogenous. It graduated from its dark version into its blissed one, reflecting the whole spectrum of Jacob’s firmest, and so very dramatic in its genesis light of Faith.
Leah : the Light of Determination
Michael’s reading of Leah ( Leah, 2009) is truly special and out of usual. In the world’s art, the Matriarch Leah’s depiction is somewhat standardised: very rarely, she is portrayed alone, on her own, far more often it is done in double-portraying her with her sister Rachel in a rather predictable way and unfavourable for Leah comparison. In well-known work by Italian Dante Gabriel Rossetti ( 1855), Leah is not only obviously sad, with less life in her than Rachel, but also with very clear message-stamp by the artist who painted Leah in a violet dress, unequivocal sign of unhappiness in traditional colour code of Italy. In a well-known mural by Tiepolo done a century before Rossetti’s work ( 1726-1729), Leah is portrayed as obviously unhappy and clearly less beautiful than her sister. Even when Leah is portrayed alone, very rarely, as being sculpted by Michelangelo in his famous composition for the tomb of the Pope Julius II in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome ( 1542-1545), she is obviously sad and tired, sculptured by the artistic genius in tangible detail.
Michael’s Leah is portrayed on her own, on purpose, with clear understanding and with intention of the artist to merit the matriarch who born six of twelve Jewish Tribes. The artist searches for Leah on her own, for what Leah was in Jacob’s life, their family and in the history of our people.
Michael shared his vision of his enlightening portrait of Leah ( 2009): “ Leah was blessed with the knowledge that she would give birth to Judah and Levi, whose role in Jewish history is so critical. That knowledge defined her life. Knowing her mission and its meaning, Leah was completely focused, in my understanding. She was absolutely determined to marry Jacob, as she knew that David and Solomon would descend from her. The donkey which I have painted here has an unique place in Jewish history. It refers to one of the most mysterious episodes in the Torah, namely the dudaim story. When Jacob came home from the fields, he was riding on a donkey which began to bray. Leah therefore knew to go outside and meet him and that night she conceived Issachar who is described as ‘a strong-boned donkey’. Once again, Leah’s utter determination has been noticed by the Creator, and her unparalleled love to Jacob has been supported by the Supreme Power” – writes the artist in his insights for his Forefathers collection ( Michael Rogatchi © Forefathers. 2011).
This Leah is reflective, as there is so much on her mind perpetually, her husband and her sister who are so closed between themselves that they are as if amalgamated into the one, in Leah’s perception, both painted next to her. But there is also the Lion of Judah, the symbol of our national strength, and Jerusalem on the horizon, the essence of our spiritual home, fortified by David and Solomon, Leah’s descendants. And there is also that donkey which has played such a special role in Leah’s life and her complicated contest with her sister for the man they both did love so much.
Michael’s painting of Leah is light and bright, Leah herself is dressed in a lovely garment. Yes, her story is complicated, but it is not negative, neither is it the story of rejection. How can it be in the case of the mother of six Tribes, including the tribes of Levi and Judah, the essentially important families for entire Jewish history and the way of the nation?
Personally, Michael treats Leah with emphasised respect, and artistically, he wanted to paint a different Leah from the known ones in the history of art. In my view, he succeeded. Leah’s light in Michael’s artistic interpretation is the light of determination – powerful, not always too warm, but quite lucid one. And this lucidity certainly helps to overcome many obstacles.
This painting has also a very special effect being hung on the wall – it starts to illuminate and enlightens everything around it. We have experienced it many times in different circumstances and places, and the effect is always the same. The work produces a palpable and lasting all the time special therapeutic effect. It is one more phenomenon of a nice mystery of art.
Rachel: the Light of Beauty
In history of art, Rachel, expectedly, is painted probably ten times more often than her sister Leah, and this mass of depiction is divided in two large, but not equal, groups, one, prevailing in quantity of depictions, with young, sometimes naive, sometimes poetic, always beautiful Rachel as it is done by Chagall, Ryland, Dyce, and the smaller but still large enough group of Rachel in her dying hour, with grieving family around her, like we know from the great works of Francesco Furini, Jacques Pilliard, or Giambettino Cignarolli.
In contrast to his depiction of Leah, Michael’s portrait of Rachel ( 2009) is emphatically sad. It is sad because the artist is compassionate to Rachel’s destiny to die so young, to be buried outside Eretz Israel, and to be torn off Jacob, her dear sons Joseph and Benjamin , and her entire family’s life so abruptly, and so tragically. This Rachel is not naive. This beautiful young woman looks at us with full knowledge of her tragic destiny, and also with her understanding of that very special role which she would be playing after her death.
Michael writes on his portrait of Rachel: “ Rachel died so very young, which was a terrible tragedy. She possessed an unique inner light; and her love for Jacob was really immeasurable, to the extent that she was ready to bear the unbearable for the sake of that love. She was a stunning beauty who, in appearance resembled Sarah, the epitome of beauty in Jewish women. But if Sarah had a stern determination in her, Rachel, to my understanding, is an embodiment of tenderness. Importantly, unlike the rest of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, who are all buried at the same site in Machpelah, Rachel was buried alone next to the road. Jacob had to bury his beloved in that heart-breaking way for the sake of innumerable Jews who, while travelling along the road to and from Babylonian exile, were greeted at that spot by her shining soul.” ( Michael Rogatchi ©. Forefathers, 2011.)
The artist’s aim in his portraying Matriarch Rachel was to expand that special light radiating from her soul and transcending all over the place and time, from the place of her burial, with that famous ancient olive tree nearby, towards the numerous Jewish souls in generations. Rachel’s is an essentially tragic story of an unique character: her tragedy transcends light that relieves despair not only among the members of her immediate family, especially Jacob and Joseph, but among multitude of those who were and are in need of consolation.
There is a telling historical detail in that connection on Sir Moses Montefiori’s personal attachment to Rachel’s tomb. As it is known, the tomb as we know it today and as it hinted in Michael’s work , has been the result of Sir Moses’ initiated and undertaken reconstruction of the Ottoman period’ building in 1841. It was at that crucial reconstruction that Sir Moses who luckily had a very able Italian Jewish architect cousin David Moccata, added an important chamber for praying to Rachel’s tomb, but also quite importantly he did obtain the key from the shrine for the Jewish community which was his another great, crucial deed for the Jewish people and Eretz Israel at the time.
Two decades after the renovation of the original Rachel’s Tomb, the replica of it had appeared at the Montefiore’s private estate which also is the location for their private historical synagogue to this day, in Kent, England, as Lady Montefiore and Sir Moses’ place of their final rest. The special attachment of Sir Moses to Rachel was in him from his childhood, his mother’s name was Rachel, as well.
Joseph: the Light of Strength
The connection between mother and son in the case of Matriarch Rachel and Joseph is worth a book of itself, as well as the role of Joseph in his family, his relations with his troubled but stoic father, and his siblings, the Tribes. Joseph is so very special not only because of thriller-like circumstances of his life, but mainly because of the purity of his outstanding soul and strength of his barely imaginably will. He is the epitome of the best in Jewish people. Maybe, that’s why Michael Rogatchi decided to paint only one brother from Jacob’s twelve sons, Joseph.
According to Midrash, Joseph was the first person who was praying at his mother’s place of burial when he was broken away from his Egyptian captors on the way to Egypt, to turn to help and protection in his utter despair. He knew and remembered the place as he was seven at the moment of Rachel’s burial. Ten years on, on his way as a captive of Egypt, Joseph ran, if even for a moment, towards it, marked with the pillar of stones, one of which was put by himself.
The fact that his mother was buried literally on the road was the open wound in Joseph’s heart for all his life. His father Jacob knew about it and tried to explain himself to his beloved son after they reunited twenty two years after the trick that his brothers did to him.
Based on the teaching of Tosafos, brilliant Baal HaTurim, Jacob ben Asher, the one of the most important Torah commentators, provides important commentary on the crucial role that Joseph played in the entire Jacob’s life, in Jacob’s own perception. According to it, and supported by the meaning of corresponding gematria, “this teaches us that Jacob did not have any good years without suffering except for 34 [years of his life], that is, seventeen years from Joseph’s birth until he was sold, and seventeen years in Egypt [during he and Joseph were together again]” ( Baal HaTurim Chumash, The ArtScroll, 2004). This is 34 years from Jacob’s 147 years of life.
In Michael’s artistic perception, “Joseph is one of the most enlightened personages in Jewish history. He radiated light. He was an incredibly strong person, and his light was a special one, the light of strength. In a parabolic way, to me, Joseph symbolises the strength of light. The light which emphasises a stunning contrast between two worlds: the one enlightened by Joseph’s mighty of good, and another which opposes it. All twelve Jewish tribes were compared to ‘an equal candle’ according to our sages. But the light of the candle which symbolised Joseph was the brightest of them all. The Jewish world enlightened by Joseph is a world of light and joy and compassion, in contrast to the hatred which has and surrounds us all too often” ( Michael Rogatchi ©, Forefathers, 2011).
No wonder that this expressive work always commands a powerful attraction among the audience when it is exhibited at Michael’s shows. The meaningful composition resolution in this painting is the artist’s metaphor of the light which encapsulated Joseph and all of us in the world which can be antagonistic, hostile and unmerciful. This is a captivating message of this profound work.
When looking and thinking on those works of Michael Rogatchi dedicated to the Jacob’s family, the combination of these four different types of spiritual light comes out as a major factor for each of these works and for all of them together: assuring light of Faith of Jacob, settling light of determination of Leah, consoling light of beauty of Rachel, and protecting light of strength of Joseph. All together, the light of the illustrious family of the progenitors of the Jewish people which still sustains us and infuses us with our ability to survive and to keep our spiritual integrity, the oxygen of life.
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Previous essays in The Ancestors Families series: