Marc Chagall’s extensive repertoire of artwork, in which Jesus and the crucifixion is the central subject, assuredly begs the question: “What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing painting a nice Jewish boy like him?” The artist’s preoccupation with Jesus as a symbol of Jewish suffering and deliverance provides much fuel for discussion from both Jewish and Christian art critics. But can either side definitively claim Chagall as its “own”?

It’s important to remember that Chagall grew up in Europe in a bewildering, disturbing atmosphere of anti-Jewish sentiment and change. The Hasidic background of his youth provided a rich source for painting Jewish culture and tradition onto the “canvas” of a new and challenging political scene in which being Jewish was a crime. Chagall combined mystery, allegory and history with religious thought and symbols both Jewish and Christian. It is often difficult to know where each of these genres begins and another leaves off, so cleverly does the artist entwine them. Any attempt to unravel one entanglement only leads to another.

“For me, Christ has always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr. That is how I understood him in 1908 when I used this figure for the first time,” Chagall said. “It was under the influence of the pogroms. Then I painted and drew him in pictures about ghettos, surrounded by Jewish troubles, by Jewish mothers, running terrified with little children in their arms.” [ 1 ]

There, the artist has said it himself: Jesus is a type of Jewish martyr. Not the Jewish martyr, but just one. The crucifixion as a motif depicting suffering—not solely salvific—pre-dates Chagall and even pre-dates the Christian era. The Greeks were known to incorporate crucifixion as a symbol of punishment into their artwork. So which is it—punishment or salvation?

Perhaps the simplest answer is that in Chagall’s work, it is neither, and it is both. For him, the Jews were being punished simply for being Jews; Jesus was punished simply for being Jewish. And as a salvation motif, crucifixion in Chagall’s work can be understood as both a hope and a means of relating to the greater culture of Europe at that time. It could be a universal symbol for Jewish people to hang on to; knowing that the Christian savior claimed to have risen from the dead, perhaps the Jews’ fate will be to also rise from the ashes of European anti-Semitism.

Perhaps the best answer to the “punishment or salvation” question is not a comfortable one, for it is a mixed view, and is not definitive. After all, the artist’s world is imaginative, and to criticize, malign or even attempt to define why Chagall painted Jesus on the cross would beckon us to do the same with other artists such as Picasso, who depicted women as the angular planes of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.[ 2 ] Picasso had his muse (sometimes muses); Jesus might have been Chagall’s source of inspiration that spoke to a continued Jewish presence in the world, an end to persecution, and comfort for endless suffering and persecution.

Was Jesus Chagall’s personal savior? On canvas, yes. Past that, we cannot be sure. But most likely, that is not what that artist wanted us to think about. He was too busy painting flying goats, flying harps and flying roosters for us to catch.

Melissa Moskowitz serves in the Young Adult Ministry of Jews for Jesus and is part of the Arts Events and Outreach team at the New York City branch. She is currently pursuing her M.A. in Art History at Brooklyn College.

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