The Jewishness of Jesus has seldom been rendered more clearly in art than in the crucifixion scenes of Marc Chagall. Although he was not the only Jewish artist to focus on the crucifixion, Chagall (1887–1985) made so many crucifixion images over his long lifetime that some have called the habit an obsession.
In one respect, this habit merely fits the larger pattern of his work, which reworked a particular set of images. The set includes a bride and wedding scenes; allusions to Vitebsk in Belarus, the town where Chagall was born; birds, cows, hens, roosters and donkeys; angels and demons; violins, Torah scrolls, candelabras and flames. One could add crucifixions to that list. With this visual vocabulary, the artist connected his own interior world to Western culture and Jewish history. “Perhaps I could have painted another Jewish prophet,” Chagall admitted, “but after two thousand years mankind has become attached to the figure of Jesus.”
There is more to it than that, however. Chagall was attached not to the figure of Jesus, but specifically to Jesus dying on the cross. He saw the crucifixion not only as the martyrdom of a Jew, but a Jew with whom he could identify personally. “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.
Chagall was 25 when he painted “Calvary” (also titled “Golgotha” or “Dedicated to Christ”). In this large Cubist study in red and green, a pale blue Jesus is stretched on the cross. Shown with a rounded body, bald head and beardless face, Jesus has been referred to as a “Christ child.” “I wanted to show Christ as an innocent child,” said Chagall. He also positioned Jesus’ parents before the cross—both parents. “I was thinking of my own parents when I painted it,” the artist said. This is unique. In Christian art Mary appears beneath the cross, not Joseph, because she is the only parent mentioned in the New Testament as having been present. Chagall renders Christian iconography in a modern style and personalizes the content. He integrates elements of Catholicism, abstract painting and innovations like a crucified child Jesus attended by his father.
Always Chagall assumes the Jewishness of Jesus. Raised in a Jewish shtetl before the Russian Revolution, the artist identifies with Jesus’ upbringing, his ritual and biblical traditions and his life under foreign occupiers hostile to Jews. Later, living as an adult artist in Paris, Chagall immersed himself anew in the Hebrew Bible, which the art dealer Ambrose Vollard commissioned him to illustrate. In 1931, Vollard subsidized Chagall’s first visit to the Holy Land. The trip, during which Chagall walked in the footsteps of Jesus toward Golgotha, deeply affected him. The artist made 65 etchings for the project before it was suspended. The reasons: Vollard died, World War II broke out, the artist and his family moved to the United States. In addition, Bella, Chagall’s wife and muse, died at the war’s end. When he finally finished the project in 1957, Chagall had pondered Jewish identity, the Bible and the icon of the crucified Jesus for decades.
If, for Chagall, Jesus represented all the innocent Jews ever slaughtered, after the Holocaust, there were millions more. Chagall processed through art the fear and horror of his era. He publicly identified with the vilified, crucified Jesus.
In “Descent from the Cross,” a bird-headed figure removes Jesus’ body, holding him pieta-like. Chagall painted it in 1941, the year he and Bella moved from Paris to Provence, hoping to survive the war. But when the French citizenship of Jews was revoked that year, American leaders of the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, along with the Emergency Rescue Committee, which saved thousands of artists and intellectuals from the Nazis, provided for the Chagalls safe passage to New York. Chagall understood what the Nazis had in store for him. In this painting, Jesus wears a Jewish prayer shawl around his loins. And Chagall has changed the placard above Jesus’ head, from INRI (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) to his own name, MARC CH. An approaching angel brings a palette and brushes. Some even see Jesus’ face as a Chagall self-portrait. Because Jesus has been put to death, the image implies that despite Chagall’s own rescue, something within him was murdered. Chagall writes in “The Painter Crucified”:
Every day I carry a cross
They push me and drag me by the hand
Already the dark of night surrounds me
You have deserted me, my God? Why?... I run upstairs
To my dry brushes
And am crucified like Christ
Fixed with nails to the easel.
Chagall’s crucifixions are diverse. In some Jesus wears a head cloth rather than a crown of thorns. In others some nameless Jew, not Jesus, hangs on the cross. Just as Chagall insists that Jesus represents Jews, he also understands that a persecuted Jew represents Jesus. These are the two sides of Chagall’s magnificent insight.
Two gouache works from 1944 and 1945 are noteworty. “The Crucified” depicts a macabre village street, where several fully clothed Jews hang on crosses. On a nearby rooftop, a seated Jew looks out as the sole survivor of this horror, holding a red, perhaps bleeding, Torah. In “Apocalypse en Lilas: Capriccio,” Jesus hangs naked on a cross in frontal position, something one hardly ever sees in Christian art. On his forehead he wears a tefillin, a small leather box containing Bible verses. Below him stands a man with a swastika on his armband, removing a ladder, as though he had just finished placing Jesus there. This scene starkly illustrates human cruelty.
Compare those images to three postwar paintings. “Flayed Ox” shows a red, slaughtered ox (not Jesus) hoisted on a cross-beam, linking the crucifixion and the Jewish tradition of Temple sacrifice with the Holocaust. In “Christ in the Night,” the crucified Jesus wears the Jewish prayer shawl, but the deep, mournful blue color has changed the tone from agony to sorrow. Chagall is in mourning. Though the war has ended, enormous damage has been done. Finally, in “Exodus,” Chagall presents, not Moses, but Jesus on the cross as the central figure of the Exodus. Jesus wears a halo as savior of the chosen people, possibly a testament to the fact that at least some Jews survived the Nazi extermination plan.
Chagall’s genius was to use Jesus’ crucifixion to address Christians, to alert them by means of their own symbol system to the systematic cruelty taking place in the Holocaust.
Whenever Christians overemphasize the uniqueness of Jesus’ suffering and death at Calvary, a past event, we risk losing sight of all the crucifixions still being perpetrated. In our day, wanton violence, maiming, torture and other cruelties still take place, against people of various backgrounds. The value of Chagall’s crucifixions is that each holds up a mirror to Christians and asks: “Here is your Lord. What will you do to stop this?”