Sir Jacob Epstein

Jacob and the Angel


On loan

Coventry Cathedral (Coventry, UK): Jacob Epstein at Coventry Cathedral

Sir Jacob Epstein 1880–1959
Unconfirmed: 2140 × 1100 × 920 mm, 2500 kg
Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Henry Moore Foundation 1996


This monumental group depicts an episode from the book of Genesis (Chapter 32, verses 24-32). According to the Biblical story, Jacob was forced to wrestle with an unknown assailant through the night. In the morning his opponent blessed him because he had not abandoned the struggle, and revealed himself to be an angel and messenger from God. Jacob gave thanks saying, 'I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved'. During the early 1930s Epstein had read and re-read the book of Genesis and executed a series of unconventional water-colours on Old Testament stories. The subject of Jacob and the Angel fascinated him and may have had personal significance, not least because of the fact that Epstein's first name was Jacob.

Before executing the large alabaster carving, Epstein made a watercolour entitled Jacob Wrestling which was included in his 1932 exhibition at the Redfern Gallery. Another drawing of the same subject was one of Epstein's illustrations for Moshe Oyved's Book of Affinity (1933).

In the carving, the night-long struggle between Jacob and his assailant is translated into a strangely ambiguous embrace between two colossal male figures. Jacob is depicted with his eyes closed and head thrown back; the angel is holding him in a tight grasp, as if squeezing his last breath from him. 'The Herculean proportions of the figures permitted the sculptor to generalise and balance the relationship of the masses while simultaneously maintaining the impact of their embrace. True to his usual practice in carving, the primary views reflect the mass the original block, but the interlocked arms also encourage the viewer to move around it. Some areas, such as Jacob's back and the angel's wings, can be read abstractly; Epstein's habitual relish for the subtle interplay of barely perceptible assymetries manifests itself in the rhythmic cadence of back, buttock, thigh and calf.' (Evelyn Silber, The Sculpture of Jacob Epstein with a Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1986, p.54)

Jacob and the Angel was completed in 1940, and can be seen as one of a group of large carvings dealing with religious themes. These included: Behold the Man, 1934-5 (Coventry Cathedral); Consummatum Est, 1936 (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) and Adam, 1938-9. These works showed Epstein's interest in so-called primitive sculpture. John Rothenstein later wrote how, in Jacob and the Angel, Epstein 'seems to have tapped the mysterious source of energy that so often animates primitive sculpture, without imitating any actual features'. (Epstein, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1961, [p.4]). The use of this primitivist style when dealing with religious subject matter was found shocking by many of Epstein's contemporaries.

Further reading:
<!UL><!LI>Epstein, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1961 (essay by John Rothenstein)
<!LI>Evelyn Silber, The Sculpture of Epstein with a Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1986
<!LI>Richard Cork, Image from Stone, in Jacob Epstein Sculpture and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Leeds City Art Galleries and Whitechapel Art Gallery 1987 <!/UL>

Mary Horlock
11 June 1997

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Display caption

Here Epstein depicts a passage from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Jacob wrestles through the night with an unknown attacker, who eventually overpowers him. In the morning, he realises he has been fighting God and his own conscience. Epstein shows Jacob exhausted, being held up by an angel. The sculpture divided opinion when it was first exhibited. The Daily Mail newspaper asked: ‘Is this a miracle or a monstrosity?’

Gallery label, September 2019

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Technique and condition

The sculpture, carved from a monolith of English alabaster stands on its own integral base. The block of alabaster ranges in colour from milky white, through pink to brown, with areas of differing transparency and opacity. Weighing over two and a half tonnes, the sculpture was created using a variety of carving tools to produce rough and smooth textures. The bodies of the figures have a smooth surface with vertical lines incised into the wings, contrasting with a coarse-textured chiselled-tooled finish in the crevices and undercuts.

There is a natural fault line in the stone from Jacob’s left wrist down through to the palm of his hand and across his little finger. Previous breaks to the base and wing had been repaired prior to acquisition. The surface of the sculpture was cleaned in 2000, restoring the ‘soapy’ translucency indicative of alabaster. The old breaks have been refilled using a more visually sympathetic fill material and the surface has a soft matt sheen as opposed to the pre-restoration polished gloss.

Bryony Bery
April 2004


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