The Christ of Marc Chagall

by Jews for Jesus | April 01 2014

It recently became widely known that the favorite painting of Pope Francis is the White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall. The news stirred up considerable speculation and controversy. Chagall, born Moishe Segal in the Polish-Lithuanian village of Vitebsk (now in Belarus), was probably the most prominent Jewish painter of the twentieth century. His White Crucifixion was not new to religious controversy. It received severely disparaging reviews from Jewish critics when it was first shown in France, and more since. The work (now hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago) represents Jesus the Jew crucified between, on the left, communist soldiers storming a village and, on the right, Nazis desecrating a synagogue. The Crucified, his loins draped in a tallit, or prayer shawl, is hoisted in the middle, a victim of hatreds from left and right alike.

For Chagall, not alone among Ashkenazi artists, Jesus on the cross represented the painful predicament of all Jews, harried, branded, and violently victimized in an apparently God-forsaken world. The INRI over his head is translated by Chagall into Hebrew, “Yeshua Hanotzri Melech Hayehudim.” In the foreground, fleeing, is a peasant wearing a German placard reading “Ich bin Jude.” Below, front and center, a sense of the whole scene as a horrific modern altarpiece is created by a candelabrum—not a menorah but a six-candled candelabrum in which one of the candles has been quenched. Explicit use of classic Jewish images, the vivid presence of modern-day horrors: Many have found the White Crucifixion a disturbing work, and not just pious Jews. For it to be singled out for admiration by a reigning pontiff is remarkable.

Bloggers have commented on the pope’s singular admiration of this painting. Some Catholics fear that he has betrayed a kind of “ecumenical syncretism”; others hope for a shift toward religious pluralism. Some Jewish commentators think the pope does not understand the uniquely Jewish—and, for them, even anti-Christian—character of the painting. Others welcome what seems to be his appreciation of a commonality in the face of evil too long neglected. We can have no doubt that the juxtapositions of Jewish and Christian symbols are unsettling. The burden of history remains heavy. The hope for deliverance from its antagonisms and agonies is strong.

Much is in the eye of the beholder. Chagall himself claimed that this dramatic use of the central symbol of Christian faith did not make it a Christian painting. Nevertheless, as he himself also said, his juxtaposition was a deliberate invitation to reflect on the meaning of the cross. And indeed, he painted many such images. In his Yellow Crucifixion (1943), for example, completed in New York after Solomon Guggenheim and his wife Irene got him out of France, he presents a double subject, pairing a huge suspended Torah with another crucified Jew. The crucified figure has tefillin, the ritual phylacteries put on by Jewish men for daily prayer, on his forehead and strapped to his outstretched arm, but also a Christian halo. This painting, too, is a deliberate juxtaposition of the Atonement in both Jewish and Christian versions. This past year, when the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross coincided with Yom Kippur (the last time was 1899, the year of Chagall’s bar mitzvah, when, he tells us, he discovered he was an artist), Chagall’s work acquired for me an added resonance.

I do not presume to put words into the mouth of the bishop of Rome, or to claim to have access to his thoughts. I do want to propose that his declared affection for Chagall’s juxtaposition of the Jewish people as the suffering servant and Jesus as the crucified redeemer suggests a deep identification with the suffering of the Jews, which he perhaps includes in his contemplation of the cross. It also invites reflection on the time in which we live, in particular on the fate of those who are daily being martyred around the world. As people fortunate enough to live far away from the horrors of religious violence, anaesthetized as we are by technologies and amusements, we seem able to banish from our minds the incessant slaughter of those elsewhere who are killed simply because of their faith. But there are indeed places today as inflamed and deadly for Christians as the scene surrounding the central figure in the White Crucifixion. As the Canadian Jewish poet Seymour Mayne put it to me after an atrocity some years ago: “Last time, Saturday people; this time, Sunday people.” Or, it seems, perhaps as Chagall intuited, both together.

Though he escaped the worst himself, Chagall was haunted. It was after he learned about Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) that he painted the White Crucifixion. But as he worked on it, he also wrote out his grief and fears in poems. Years later, in the mid-1960s, he sent a selection of these poems, some with line drawings in their margins, to the Yiddish journal Di Goldene Keyt (The Golden Chain) in Tel Aviv. In one, a Jewish man is on his knees, hands reaching toward a large rooster, for Chagall a kind of signature. (A rooster is often found in Chagall’s crucifixion paintings, probably because it was traditionally sacrificed on the eve of Yom Kippur.) Opposite this drawing is his remarkable poem “Mayne Trern” (My Tears). In four stanzas, each four lines, he utters a cri de coeur. Translated, the last stanza reads:

I carry my cross every day,
I am led by the hand and driven on,
Night darkens around me.
Have you abandoned me, my God? Why?

Chagall engaged in a weekly study of Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, in Hebrew. His command of biblical idiom was fluent, as his recollection here of Psalm 22:1—though in Yiddish—shows (“Hastu mir verlatzen, mein Gott? Fer was?”). But the first line in the stanza, the allusion to Luke 9:23, reveals also a knowledge of the New Testament. Here, as in his paintings, the two testaments are drawn together in a personal expression of spiritual distress.

His parents and his beloved first wife Bella were from Hasidic families, and he refers lovingly to the Hasidic rabbi from Mohileff as having “the greatest influence” on him. Yet there is little evidence to suggest he went to shul during his sojourn in Russia, France, or briefly (1943–48) in the United States. Instead, it seems he hoped his art itself would be salvific. His spiritual exercise, as he put it, was “to breathe my sigh into my canvases, the sigh of prayers and sadness, the prayer of salvation, of rebirth.”

We do not look into the heart of an artist for analytical theological warrant. He is not a religious pedagogue or pulpit preacher. In Chagall, we may more reasonably look for moving power, symbols of transcendence, perhaps reasons of the heart, gestures of hope—or despair—for a fractured, atomized world. Chagall was a lifelong friend of Raïssa Maritain, like him raised in a Yiddish-speaking orthodox Jewish community, but who along with her husband Jacques converted to Christianity in 1906. She said that Chagall shows us “Christ étendu à travers le monde perdu,” Christ spread across the lost world.

For Chagall, images of hope tinged with despair, of joyous celebration in the face of death, remained in the foreground of his essentially Jewish religious imagination. No artist of modernity so happily represents marriage on his canvases (as in his life)—marriage as a good and symbolic of a higher good. And he did so despite pogroms, the Russian Revolution, and two world wars, which so often impinged on his canvases. But he also reflected on the darker elements of Jewish experience, characteristically framing them in the light of the biblical story.

Among the most memorable Jewish narratives is the Akedah, the account of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Chagall came back to this scene many times, gradually moving from darkness to light. His early treatments illuminate his later crucifixion paintings in a distinctive way. In 1931, while he was working on his celebrated Bible etchings for art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1931–39, 1952–56), he first showed a naked Isaac stretched out for ritual slaughter, Abraham with his knife raised, and the angel pointing to a ram caught not in “a thicket,” as the usual reading depicts, but in the roots of a tree. He also painted this rendering of the Akedah in oil and guache on paper, just as he did with many of the other etchings done for Vollard. The shading of this work is almost as dark as the ink of the etching. Then he did another painting, still more disturbing, of Abraham and Isaac going in the predawn darkness up Mount Moriah, the boy carrying wood for the sacrifice in a sack over his shoulder. Abraham’s knife gleams in the light of his candle, grimly against the dull chiaroscuro, the black, brown, and ochre of the rest of the scene.

Whether or not he attended synagogue services, Chagall would have known from his youth that the text read from Genesis 22 in the morning service was conventionally moralized and read to refer to Jewish martyrdom, the supreme act of sacrifice in loyalty to God’s covenant. It was inherently a somber, troubling narrative, a painful mystery at the heart of Jewish experience. Yet when he returned to the subject again in 1964–66, he abandoned ink and chiaroscuro, doing instead several sketches and studies in pastels on paper. The colors and figures are not somber but red and blue with touches of gold. All the original elements are present, but now there is a background scene not previously to be found, showing in the far distance a crucifixion with figures of mourners.

The juxtaposition of the sacrifice of Isaac with the Passion of Christ is familiar to Christians. We have from early times seen the Akedah and the divinely provided substitute ram for the sacrifice as prefiguring the Crucifixion of Christ. While I do not presume that Chagall knew patristic exegesis, he might readily have seen this juxtaposition in stained glass or, perhaps, in something like the Biblia Pauperum on exhibit at the Musée de Cluny. It is abundantly clear that Chagall had “eyes to see.”

He also had “ears to hear.” Multilingual, he spoke not only the Lithuanian-inflected Polish of his birthplace but also Yiddish and Russian—he wrote poetry in both—and French, the language in which he wrote the story of his early life. He learned the Bible in Hebrew through a method by which the text takes on life through oral recitation, aural reception, and memory. It is also therefore entirely possible that his familiarity with the verbal texture of the Akedah in its original Hebrew provoked word associations when he was reading the New Testament, just as his knowledge of Psalm 22:1 may have encouraged the combination of Jewish and Christian elements that make the White Crucifixion so powerful.

Whether he was reading in French, Polish, or Russian translations, he would have encountered the final words of Jesus from the Cross, always left printed in their original Hebrew: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani.” Jesus was quoting Psalm 22:1—the verse echoed in Chagall’s poem where he translated the verb a-zabtani as verlatzen, “forsaken.” The same verb appears in Genesis 22:13. Abraham looks up and sees a ram “ne’echaz ba-sbach b’kamav”—caught in the thicket by its horns. The Hebrew is a bit richer than our standard translation, however. The root for the verb describing the ram’s condition, sbach / tzvach, conveys distressed abandonment.

There is a visual hint that Chagall connected the last words of Jesus from the cross with the ram “hung up on the thicket.” His ram is entangled not in a thicket, as in the depiction of so many Christian painters, but in the roots of a tree, evoking the upright span of wood so central to the Christian imagination. Whatever Chagall’s prompt, the intertextual echo in Hebrew is here clearly given artistic form. Yet his distinctive typology is a reversal of Christian convention. The almost-sacrifice of Isaac is foregrounded; Christ on the Cross, the tree of new life, is the background, a poignant midrash on its Jewish meaning.

However we contemplate the Christ of Marc Chagall, whether in the light of early twentieth-century Jewish intellectual appropriations of Jesus as a type of all suffering Jews or in the light of Chagall’s personal identification with the one he called “my Christ” in one of his letters, his verbal and visual universalizing of biblical narrative in a way that juxtaposes the Jewish and Christian stories of sacrifice and redemption is unique in modern art.

Today dark clouds are again on the horizon. Jewish voices are sounding the alarm for Christians, often with greater clarity than do we for those to whom we are joined in baptism. In these times, our times, is it surprising that a spiritually sensitive pontiff should be drawn to such a prophetic exponent of our interwoven story? Passover and Easter are always proximate. Perhaps the time is ripe for more of us to contemplate the Christ of Marc Chagall.

David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and Humanities in the Honors College of Baylor University.

From First Things is published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life