Marc Chagall’s Gift: “White Crucifixion”

March 5, 2012 2:34 pm 0 comments

"White Crucifixion" by Marc Chagall. Photo: pamelainob via flickr.

The scheduling of Passover and Easter at close to the same moment on the calendar can remind Jews of the historic entanglement of the two faiths.  For the adherents of Judaism, the holiday celebrates national liberation from bondage, which is the prelude to the emergence of an ethical monotheism that would henceforth be based upon land and law.  The claim that Christianity advances is of course far more explicitly and unambiguously Universalist.  After suffering and sacrifice and death, a resurrection can offer hope for the redemption of humanity itself.  Both of these holidays are occasions for gratitude and for optimism, but against a backdrop of the sting of the lash and the infliction of unwarranted cruelty.  So this is a season to contemplate the legacy of an artist who was haunted by the troublesome implications of the entanglement of Passover and Easter.

Has any painter managed to capture more exuberantly, more indelibly, the possibilities of love and liberty than Marc Chagall?  In the popular imagination, he is responsible for those cheerful images of bouquets and of bovine contentment.  His brides float giddily above Paris; his fiddlers poise precariously on roofs, but offer the pleasures of music and dance.  Chagall was able to deploy the brightest of colors to tap into the euphoria that can sometimes punctuate human experience.  His canvases, his murals and his stained-glass windows can bring smiles to viewers, but without forfeiting the admiration of serious critics and scholars.  No major figure in the span of Western art was more Jewish.  And yet Chagall was hardly parochial, having done commissions for cathedrals in Metz, Reims, Zurich and elsewhere.

In 1938 he produced a remarkable painting of Jesus on the cross.  The White Crucifixion reimagines the single most iconic moment in the mythology of Christianity, and yet makes that reverberant representation a strikingly Jewish phenomenon as well.  This somber painting, which belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago, is something of an anomaly among the artist’s odes to joy.  But then, in one sense, to claim that Jesus was anything other than a Jew is as odd as classifying Jefferson as something other than an American.

Instead of a loincloth covering the otherwise naked Savior, he is wrapped in a tallis.  Surrounding him is not the jeering mob that medieval painters sometimes portrayed, but instead the inhabitants of the shtetl.  Instead of the pastoral charm that Chagall characteristically evoked, there is chaos, with an atmosphere of terror and flight enveloping those fragile Torah scrolls.  The palette of the White Crucifixion is recognizably Chagall’s, but the brightest color in this painting is flame-orange; and a Nazi thug, wearing an armband, is burning down a synagogue.  Here was a portent of the consuming fire from which precious few would be spared.  Desperate refugees hover on a boat.  (Could Chagall have anticipated his own good fortune in escaping across the Atlantic three years later?)

The White Crucifixion occurs in the context of a pogrom, though the painter could scarcely be expected to have envisioned a Final Solution that would make Tsarist rampages seem an anachronism from a more civilized era.  Red flags are depicted at the top left of the painting, but the regime that succeeded the Romanovs hardly assures liberation.  On the top right is the flag of Lithuania, where Judaic learning had flourished and where antisemitism was commonplace. That nation’s own independence would be lost two years later as the rival totalitarian powers divided the early spoils of the Second World War.

What led Chagall to transform the passion of Christ in this way?  In an incisive book on the painter, published in 2007, Jonathan Wilson of Tufts University conjectures that there was no precedent in the long annals of Jewish martyrdom that could match in historic influence the Crucifixion.  Nothing else could match its ambiguous, inescapable “Judeo-Christian” magnitude, its capacity to inspire awe and even a sense of metaphysical mystery.  No other subject might suggest to believers in a risen Son of God what the co-religionists of Jesus were enduring in 1938, on a continent that the Third Reich was about to dominate and devastate.  No other sign of agony might elicit sympathy for a beleaguered people that a sister faith could not–and would not–protect.  The best known and the most frequently portrayed Jew in history would have to symbolize for Chagall the anonymous and random deaths that the mechanisms of genocidal fury would soon inflict.  The effect worked, at least for the eminent Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain.  “Israel is climbing Calvary,” he wrote in 1941.  “As in Marc Chagall’s beautiful painting, the poor Jews, without understanding it, are swept along in the great tempest of the Crucifixion.”

Not until after his bar mitzvah did Chagall change his first name from Moshe, the name of the liberator from Egyptian bondage.  But in depicting Jesus in so transformative a setting as the White Crucifixion, Chagall made from the seasonal overlapping of Passover and Easter a painting that manages to blend his flair for summoning beauty with the gift of tragic depth.

Stephen J. Whitfield holds the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization at Brandeis University and is the author of In Search of American Jewish Culture(University Press of New England, 1999).

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – Rabbi Gordon Tucker spent the first 20 years of his career teaching at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the next 20 years as the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. I confess that when I heard about the order of those events, I thought that Tucker’s move from academia to the pulpit was strange. Firstly, I could not imagine anyone filling the place of my friend, Arnold Turetsky, who was such a talented [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    JNS.org – I’m in love, and have been for a long time. It’s a relationship filled with laughter, tears, intrigue, and surprise. It was love at first sight, back when I was a little girl—with an extra-terrestrial that longed to go home. From then on, that love has never wavered, and isn’t reserved for one, but for oh so many—Ferris Bueller, Annie Hall, Tootsie, Harry and Sally, Marty McFly, Atticus Finch, Danny Zuko, Yentl, that little dog Toto, Mrs. Doubtfire, [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    At the turn of the 21st century through today, American involvement in Middle Eastern politics runs through the Central Intelligence Agency. In America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, historian Hugh Wilford shows this has always been the case. Wilford methodically traces the lives and work of the agency’s three most prominent officers in the Middle East: Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, and the first head of [...]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Residents of the Los Angeles Jewish Home give dating advice to a young Jewish man in a comedic video posted Monday on YouTube just in time for Valentine’s Day. Jonathan, an associate at the Jewish home, quizzes the senior citizens on an array of topics including having sex on the first date, kissing a girl, who should pay for dinner and whether online dating is a good idea. When the 28-year-old asks a male resident named Lee about his experiences [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Anyone who spent time in the Jewish Catskills hotels – especially those like me, who returned for decades – must see the new documentary,”Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.” Not only will the film transport you back to the glory days of your youth and thousands of memories, but it will also make you long for a world that is now lost forever. I returned to Kutsher’s one last time in the summer of 2009, but by then, the [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Jewish Identity Lifestyle Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    JNS.org – Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences. The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also [...]

    Read more →
  • Commentary Featured Features Jewish 100 The Top 100 People Positively Influencing Jewish Life, 2014

    The Top 100 People Positively Influencing Jewish Life, 2014

    The Top 100 People Positively Influencing Jewish Life, 2014 ACADEMIA Alain Finkielkraut Moshe Halbertal Deborah Lipstadt Jacob Metzer Steven Pinker Tammi Rossman-Benjamin ARTS AND CULTURE Yaacov Agam David Blatt Leonard Cohen Gal Gadot Scarlett Johansson Ryan Kavanaugh Steven Spielberg Harry Styles INNOVATION AND ACTIVISM Meira Aboulafia Adina Bar-Shalom Nitsana Darshan-Leitner Daniel Gold Anett Haskia Ephrat Levy-Lahad Gabriel Nadaf Dumisani Washington GOVERNMENT Tony Abbott José María Aznar Ron Dermer Yuli Edelstein Abdul Fatah el-Sisi Stephen Harper Goodluck Jonathan Mitch McConnell Narendra Modi [...]

    Read more →
  • Features Jewish 100 Jewish 100, 2014: Bassam Eid – Voices

    Jewish 100, 2014: Bassam Eid – Voices

    Bassam Eid Palestinian human rights activist While Palestinians who demonize Israel as the sole reason for their woes receive no shortage of media invitations, those among them who spotlight their own leaders’ iniquities are far less in demand. Even so, the profile of Bassam Eid, the Director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, is thankfully continuing to grow. Eid’s latest campaign is for the overhaul of UNRWA, the UN refugee agency dedicated solely to the Palestinians, which he says [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.