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...

  • Beliefs and concepts Sports Does Working Out With Other Jews Keep You Jewish?

    Does Working Out With Other Jews Keep You Jewish?

    JNS.org – For Daphna Krupp, her daily workout (excluding Shabbat) at the Jewish Community Center (JCC or “J”) of Greater Baltimore has become somewhat of a ritual. She not only attends fitness classes but also engages with the instructors and plugs the J’s social programs on her personal Facebook page. “It’s the gym and the environment,” says Krupp. “It’s a great social network.” Krupp, who lives in Pikesville, Md., is one of an estimated 1 million American Jewish members of more [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Sports Illustrated Profiles Orthodox NCAA Basketball Player Aaron Liberman

    Sports Illustrated Profiles Orthodox NCAA Basketball Player Aaron Liberman

    Sports Illustrated magazine featured an extensive profile on Orthodox-Jewish college basketball player Aaron Liberman on Wednesday.  The article details Liberman’s efforts to balance faith, academics and basketball at Tulane University, a challenge the young athlete calls “a triple major.” Sports Illustrated pointed out that Liberman is the second Orthodox student to play Division I college basketball. The other was Tamir Goodman, the so-called “Jewish Jordan.” As reported in The Algemeiner, Liberman started his NCAA career at Northwestern University. According to [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    As the popularity of cycling continues to increase across the world, Israel is working to develop cycling trails that make the country’s spectacular desert accessible to cyclists. The southern segment of the Israel Bike Trail was inaugurated on Feb. 24 and offers for the first time a unique, uninterrupted 8-day cycling experience after six years of planning and development. The southern section of the Israel Bike Trail stretches over 300 kilometers in length and is divided into eight segments for mountain biking, [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    JNS.org – With the recent Oscars in the rearview mirror, Hollywood’s attention now shifts to the rest of this year’s big-screen lineup. Two of the major action films coming up in 2015—Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters in May, and the third film in the Fantastic Four series, slated for an August release—have Jewish roots that the average moviegoer might be unaware of. As it turns out, it took a tough Jewish kid from New York City’s Lower East [...]

    Read 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 →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.