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The Song of Songs or Song of Solomon: “For thy love is better than wine...”

LA BIEN-AIMEE (LA JEUNE MARIÉE), Dante Rossetti, 1865/66 - Tate Britain, Londres

Dante Rossetti
Tate Britain, London





In order to clearly identify the subject of this painting, Rossetti inscribed a few words on its gilded frame: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (Song of Solomon 2:16) and “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine” (1:2) The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is one of the most beautiful love songs in world literature. It celebrates a couple who meet, lose, search for and finally find each other. It is the most ‘profane’ book of the Old Testament. The Songs are rooted in the oral tradition of Ancient Egypt; in both form and content, they are very close to the erotic poetry of the Middle Empire (around the 10th century BC). Some think that the verses made up part of a lost marriage tradition, and were brought to Israel during the reign of Solomon. The Songs were compiled and put into writing in the 6th century BC. They appeared among the Hebrew texts of the Library of Alexandria, translated into Greek and regrouped under the title of the Septuagint. Despite their beauty, the texts met with reticence from scholars charged with Biblical canon because of their manifest sensuality and profane origin. It was not until the 1st century AD that the Song of Songs was accepted as a canon Biblical text. 

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1. For Gustav Moreau, drunkenness (and not love-drunkenness) is the predominant theme. He chose to illustrate a less well-known episode of the Song of Songs – that of the rape of the Shulammite maiden (an inhabitant of Sulam in Galilee) by drunken soldiers. Imprisoned in a harem, the Sulamite dreams of her beloved. When she tries to reach him under cover of darkness, she is attacked by drunken soldiers who tear off her clothes:  "The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me" (Song of Solomon 5: 7).

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From 1957 to 1966, Chagall painted a series of five canvases which dealt with the ardent love of an engaged couple: 'How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices!' Dans le texte biblique, l’amour l’emporte sur le vin, même si celui-ci est largement cité et loué. Avec Chagall, il semble absent. La couleur lie-de-vin de l'arrière-plan jouerait-elle un rôle ?


Chagall numbered the paintings clearly in order to show their visual and thematic evolution. The five canvases go further and further in their exploration of the mysteries of this love, whose origin is found in God. However, Chagall arranged for the canvases to be hung anticlockwise in the Fine Arts Museum in Nice. This was intended to communicate the idea that love is not subject to linear time – it escapes from it and vanishes into eternity.

1. Marc Chagall pays tribute to his second wife, Valentina Brodsky, to whom he dedicates, within his own museum, the painting cycle dedicated to this love poemTo Vava my wife my joy and my lightness.

2. Song of Songs I – "The embracing couple, here at the bottom right, features in all the paintings. The yellow and blue gazelles visible at the top left evoke this verse from the Song of Songs, tinged with eroticism: “Your breasts are like two fawns / Twins of a gazelle”. David is not depicted, but his presence is suggested with two allusions: his throne in the left-hand corner of the canvas and, to the right, a bird playing a lyre, the king’s favourite instrument. Vertically down the right-hand edge of the painting, we can see a city plunged into darkness and the silhouette of a young nude woman: in the Song of Songs, the fiancée searches for her beloved in the streets of Jerusalem at night.

3. Song of Songs II – Most of the figures present in the first painting of the cycle feature in the other pieces too: the young woman, here shown alone and naked, lying beneath a palm tree above Jerusalem. David, here flying near his throne, at the top right, in the form of a bird because his music evokes that of birds and angels. In the centre of the picture, the head of a man brings to mind Chagall’s numerous self-portraits – to demonstrate how much he recognises himself in the Song of Songs, his face appears in several of the paintings.

4. Song of Songs III – The composition, constructed on three large rounded shapes which clearly evoke a woman’s breasts and belly, is also cut in two by a horizon line which divides the painting into two distinct halves. Chagall seems to have wanted to tell his story in this painting: the depiction of Jerusalem, in the centre, is doubled: above, the city resembles the town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, with its ramparts. In the “mirror image”, below and upside-down, the city is Vitebsk, recognisable from its green-roofed sanctuary. The whole lower part of the painting, upside-down too, evokes the artist’s youth: the errant Jew, carrying his bag on his shoulder, speaks of his exile; the couple embracing on the bottom edge is him and Bella, now lying on the ground. The upper part is a hymn to his new life in the South of France, and the couple in wedding clothes under the dais represents his second marriage to Vava, to whom the whole cycle is dedicated (see 1.).

5. Song of Songs IV – Reprising one of the backdrops of the opera Aleko, the composition presents David and Bathsheba embracing on the back of a winged horse flying over Jerusalem. The colour of David’s face might illustrate the Jewish saying “to be green with emotion”. The horse occupies a central place in the composition and could mean several things: it embodies the force of human love, capable of reaching the divine, but also the power of carnal desire. It is Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology, a symbol of poetry. The “comet” effect of the bride’s train adds to the dynamism of the composition.

6. Song of Songs V – The composition is set around two hills. Each evokes a city: to the right, Chagall’s native city of Vitebsk (again recognisable by its green-domed cathedral) and, to the left, Jerusalem. To avoid confusion, the artist has added, on the far left, the throne of King David, surrounded by lions of the tribe of Judas, displays the name “Jerusalem” in Hebrew. In a sky crammed with dancing figures features a brightly-coloured sun in the form of the Star of David. It dominates the whole left side of the canvas. David’s long, purple silhouette is crowned with a bird’s head because his singing evokes that of birds and angels. He moves through the sky towards a bride surrounded by flowers and fruit – a promise that there will be descendants. The style of the painting, which is not realistic, accords the most important figures a greater size.”


Source: Marc Chagal National Museum

Bible text, Old Testament, Poetic Books, Song of Solomon

"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. Because of the savor of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee. Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee (Song of Solomon 1: 2-4)... "He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love (2: 4)... "How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices! (4:10)... "I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved! " (5:1)... "Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies." (7: 2)... "This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes. I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples; And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak..." (7: 7-10).


In the Bible texts above, love is greater than wine, and the joy of sex goes far beyond the euphoria of drunkenness. The vine in the Song of Songs is a well-chosen metaphor for the ‘beloved’s’ sexuality. The vine is the source of wine, just as the body of one lover is a source of pleasure for the other.

It is in a vineyard that the speaker wishes to give herself to her lover. If the vineyard is to produce fruit for its owner, it must – as the verse says – guard it well. The vineyard is encircled by a wall and all around it are


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