Chagall’s Gift

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March Chagall's "White Crucifixion," depicted Jesus' crucifixion with strong Jewish imagery, thereby tying the holidays of Passover and Easter even closer together. Note: This is a screen grab, not the hi-res image. The original image belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago.

March Chagall's "White Crucifixion," depicted Jesus' crucifixion with strong Jewish imagery, thereby tying the holidays of Passover and Easter even closer together. Note: This is a screen grab, not the hi-res image. The original image belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago. 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).

Posted on March 4, 2012 and filed under Special Sections.