The Jewish Jesus in Modern Art: Marc Chagall’s ‘White Crucifixion’ (1938)


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading
  7. Useful web resources
  8. Images

1. Historical context of the source

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is best-known for his fanciful images of the Russian town of Vitebsk, where he spent his youth.  But alongside his images of topsy-turvy fiddlers and flying livestock, the Jewish painter had a lifelong obsession with the Crucifixion, an fascination which took on multifarious meanings over his long career.  In order to understand the White Crucifixion (1938), Chagall’s most iconic treatment of this motif, we first need to survey its appearance in some of his earliest mature works, beginning with Dedicated to Christ from 1912, alternatively referred to as Golgotha or Calvary.

Painted two years after the artist first arrived in Paris from St. Petersburg, Dedicated to Christfeatures an icy-blue Christ-child set against the faint outlines of a green cross. The cross blends into an emerald background of oscillating triangles and circles, complemented by a swirling red foreground. At the base of the cross the two colours intersperse in the cubist portrayals of a man and a woman standing on opposite sides of the cross, whom Chagall once identified as depictions of his own parents (Ziva Amishai-Maisels, 1995-96, 74). Chagall coyly plays with Christian iconography here.   Not only does he pin an infant Jesus to the cross instead of a predictably mature figure, his inclusion of the child’s father as well as his mother brings Jesus fully down to earth, undercutting his identity as the Son of God.

This iconographical departure from Christian tradition is a key statement of artistic as well as religious difference. Chagall recalls: “When I painted this work in Paris, I wanted to free myself psychologically from the outlook of the icon painters and from Russian art altogether” (Baal-Teshuva, 1998, 71). In Dedicated to Christ, Chagall declares his allegiance to Western art, in particular to the Parisian avant-garde. With its rotating discs and complementary colour scheme, Chagall’s composition recalls the work of his Parisian contemporary, Robert Delaunay whose style was christened ‘Orphism’ by Guillaume Apollinaire. Critically, Chagall formulates this artistic statement through the image of the Crucifixion, a motif in which—already in this early stage of his career—he recognizes the potential for self-reflection about his place in Western art.

Dedicated to Christ responds to Chagall’s new artistic setting, and it also reflects back on the conditions he left behind in Russia. In 1977, Chagall commented on the significance of the figure of Jesus in his early work:

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 [. . .] 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 (Amishai-Maisels, 1993, 185).

By portraying Jesus as a Jewish martyr, Chagall follows an established tradition of Jewish artists using the image of Jesus to indict their Christian persecutors, while at the same time hoping to arouse their empathy. Chagall’s primary role model in this approach was his Russian predecessor, the sculptor Mark Antokolsky (1843–1902).  In a bronze statue from 1873, Ecce Homo, Antokolsky cast Jesus with a distinctly Jewish physiognomy, payot—the side curls worn by Orthodox Jews—and a skullcap. Explaining the rationale behind this overtly Jewish Jesus, Antokolsky remarked that Jesus ‘was and died a Jew for truth and brotherhood’ (Amishai-Maisels, 2001, 58).  Like his precursor, Chagall hoped his own work would call attention to the hypocrisy of Christian persecution of Jews.  If in the blood libel, resurgent in Russia at the time, Jews were accused of draining Christian babies of their blood, here Chagall points the accusing finger in the opposite direction.  By placing his own Jewish parents at the foot of the cross, and adding stars of David to the loincloth of the crucified child, Chagall insists that it is in fact a Jewish child who is killed by Christians. Through their persecution of Jews, the painting declares, Christians crucify the very essence of their faith.

By using the crucifixion both to express his newfound artistic identity and also to call attention to Jewish persecution, Chagall defines the two poles between which all his later treatments of the crucifixion would alternate. Throughout his career, the figure of Jesus oscillates in Chagall’s imagination between the “great poet whose poetical teaching had been forgotten by the modern world” (Chagall, 2003, 66) and “the true type of the Jewish martyr” (Amishai-Maisels, 1993, 185). After the Second World War, this balance began to shift in favour of the poetic, with Jesus’ identity as a Jewish victim fading into the background as Chagall explored how he might serve as a symbol for the modern Jewish artist, or the rebirth of Jewish culture.  In the 1930s and 1940s, however, as the events of the Shoah unfolded, it was the agony of the Crucifixion which compelled Chagall above all else as he desperately attempted to awaken the Christian world to the suffering of Europe’s Jews.

After not touching the theme of the Crucifixion for nearly twenty years, following Dedicated to Christ, the figure of Christ made an eerie return to Chagall’s work in 1930 as the Nazis began their rise to power. After spending part of the spring of 1930 in Berlin—where he witnessed an increasing tide of German anti-Semitism—Chagall returned to southern France, shaken by a premonition of Jewish catastrophe. In a small ink drawing from that summer, Chagall depicts the troubled horizon ahead. Framed by an open window, the stark, crucified figure of a Jewish Christ—identified by the prayer shawl hanging from his waist — troubles the vista of the serene French countryside. By the close of the decade, Chagall’s Vision of Christ on the Cross had taken on a terrifying reality, and in the latter months of 1938 the artist set to work on his iconic White Crucifixion, a canvas which he hoped would rattle the world out of its indifference.

2. Source

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion

3. Discussion of the source

In the White Crucifixion, Chagall leaves little doubt of Jesus’ identity as an observant Jew, persecuted for his ancestral faith.  He wears a beard and his head is devoutly covered, while a prayershawl has been slung around his loins, perhaps as a taunt by his captors, or possibly as a gesture of pity, preserving the last vestiges of his modesty.  Chagall surrounds this Jesus with a series of scenes directly referencing contemporary attacks and oppressive restrictions forced upon Jews.  The arrangement here, with smaller, related episodes arranged around a central figure, recalls the icon paintings which Chagall grew up surrounded by in Russia, and the viewer’s eye is invited to circle around the perimeter of the picture, meditating on the scenes one by one.  In the upper right of the canvas a Nazi Brownshirt plunders the ark from a flaming synagogue, calling to mind the destruction of the Munich and Nuremberg synagogues on 9 June and 10 August 1938.  The lions placed over the synagogue doors may refer to Judah, but they could also, following Christian iconography, be read as heraldic references to the Evangelist Mark, thus serving as a coded reference to the artist’s own forename.  In the lower left of the painting an elderly man staggers imploringly towards the viewer, a placard fastened to his chest. Even with the text of the sign blurred beyond recognition—we know from reproductions of earlier versions of the painting that it once explicitly read “Ich bin Jude“, I am a Jew—it is clear from the context that the man is a victim of Nazi measures designed to differentiate and humiliate Jews.  Above him, refugees unsuccessfully attempt to escape by boat while a nearby shtetl is set ablaze in the helter-skelter of a pogrom. While some commentators speculate that the rabble emerging from the upper left of the canvas, waving the flags of the Russian Red Army, represent an element of hope in the picture, they may also portend further danger in the hands of an artist who had experienced first-hand the virulence of Russian anti-Semitism (Bohm-Duchen, 1998, 231).

The prospect of a divine intercession is equally cloudy.  Even the colour of the canvas, which might evoke associations of purity to a Christian viewer—as in the white lilies which the Virgin Mary so often clasps in Annunciation images—can bear grim connotations for the Jewish viewer, who might think of the kittel, the shroud in which Jews are traditionally buried.  Though some critics, particularly those writing from a Christian perspective, have glimpsed a sign of deliverance in the beam of light that bisects the canvas, what is ultimately illuminated is not so much the promise of redemption as the reality of suffering. This is not a Christian Christ whose suffering saves, or whose death expiates sin. Chagall’s Jesus is an innocent Jew, suffering without cause and without the certainty of resurrection. While ancestral spirits—possibly the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the matriarch Rachel (Jer. 31.15)—grieve above, there is no one below to take Jesus’ body down from the cross; the figures that surround the crucified Jesus seem propelled away from him as they scatter to their separate fates. Confirming Jesus’ isolation, the ladder next to him dissolves into smoke, dooming him to remain on the cross (Roskies, 1984, 286).

Not only does the unmoored ladder further underscore Jesus’ abandonment by humanity, it also points to his abandonment by God. The ladder—frequently included by Chagall in his various imaginings of the Crucifixion—is for him not only the implement of the deposition, it is also a reminder of Jacob’s ladder.  As such, the ladder serves as a symbol of God’s promise to Jacob during his dream at Bethel: ‘I am with you and will keep you wherever you go’ (Genesis 28.13–15). In the midst of the picture’s tempest of destruction—the ransacked synagogue, the burning homes, and fleeing refugees—this promise is called radically into doubt.  In the lower right-hand corner of the canvas a diagonal plume of smoke billows from the open scrolls of the Torah. Following this stream of smoke we are led ineluctably upwards to the ladder, which in turn guides us to the stripped torso of Jesus. The White Crucifixion leaves us to wonder whether God’s covenantal promises have literally gone up in smoke, ending only in suffering.

The figure of the beggar striding across the chain of smoke adds a further wrinkle to the interpretation of this section of the painting. This ‘Wandering Jew’, so familiar in Chagall’s symbolic lexicon, is on the one hand, as Chagall has commented, a cipher for his own, sometimes forced peregrinations (Baigell, 2002, 79). The figure might also be the prophet Elijah. In My Life, Chagall recalls celebrating the festival of Passover as a child.  Opening the door for Elijah as part of the traditional meal, he wonders aloud if Elijah is “in the guise of a wretched old man, a hunch-backed beggar, with a pack on his back and a stick in his hand” (Chagall, 1965, 45). While his outstretched hand has been conspicuously robbed of his accustomed staff—perhaps adding further insult to injury—the description is otherwise a perfect fit for the beggar of the White Crucifixion.  According to Jewish tradition, Elijah will announce the coming of messiah. By showing Elijah in disguise, hastening away from the scene of the Crucifixion, Chagall makes clear that this Jesus is not the messiah. Deliverance remains painfully postponed.

After the White Crucifixion, Chagall’s wartime crucifixions moved in two major directions. The first was a tendency, as the destruction of the Shoah intensified, to make his message more explicit. In 1940 he painted a crucifixion in which he gave Jesus a Jewish skullcap and replaced the traditional INRI (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) sign over his head with the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, making unmistakably clear that Jesus is being crucified precisely because he is a Jew. Moreover, the lone sign of hope in theWhite Crucifixion, the burning candelabrum planted at the foot of the cross, with five of its six candles still aflame, lies toppled in this new work, indicating Chagall’s increasing despair.  InYellow Crucifixion (1943) Chagall laments another tragedy, the sinking of the Struma loaded with Jewish refugees in 1942.  In 1944, after hearing of the destruction of Vitebsk and the liquidation of the ghettos of Eastern Europe, Chagall painted The Crucified, an uncompromising image of outright Jewish slaughter.  In a shtetl blanketed by heavy snow, the bodies of Jews—all in traditional Eastern European garb—are staked to crosses erected in the middle of a deserted street.

At the same time that Chagall increasingly utilized the crucifixion to accentuate the Jewish identity of Holocaust victims, he also began to see the image of the crucified Christ as a symbol of his personal suffering, especially after he was forced into exile in the United States, in the spring of 1941.  In his poem “The Painter Crucified”, Chagall cries out:

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 (Amishai-Maisels, 1993, 184).

Caked from disuse, the artist’s dry brushes symbolize Chagall’s overwhelming feeling of creative impotence in the face of the unfolding tragedy in Europe. The point is bluntly reinforced by the artist’s image of himself crucified to his easel. Art, the sanctuary to which he vainly “run[s] upstairs”, becomes the very implement of his torture. And yet, even within this stark expression of the artist’s torment, there remains an element of hope. Just as Christ’s cross is transformed into the emblem of his triumph, so too the easel in Chagall’s poem augurs the potential for revival.  In Descent from the Cross, a small gouache from 1941, Chagall gives pictorial shape to this potential. As his body is drawn down from the cross, Chagall—qua Christ—receives his palette and brush from an angel. Even as he uses the Crucifixion to symbolize Jewish tragedy, it also—however faintly—conveys an element of hope, of resurrection through art.  And this might be what is most radical in Chagall’s renderings of the Crucifixion.  While he stops far short of attributing any salvific content to the event, Chagall is sensitive to the optimism which this most horrific of images has, for centuries of Christian viewers, engendered.  And even Jews, he wagers, might co-opt some of this symbolic power. For all the bleakness of its vision, after all, the lights have not yet gone out of the White Crucifixion.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. Why have some Jews reacted negatively to this image?
  2. Is it legitimate for Christians to read this work as an image of Christian salvation?
  3. Is this a productive image for stimulating interfaith dialogue?
  4. Many other Jewish artists created images of Jesus in relation to the Second World War, including Samuel Bak, Adolph Gottlieb, Emmanuel Mané-Katz, Emmanuel Levy, Barnett Newman, Abraham Rattner, and Mark Rothko. Compare Chagall’s use of the Crucifixion to works by one or more of these artists.
  5. In the immediate postwar years, several Christian artists—including Graham Sutherland and Rico Lebrun—created Crucifixion scenes inspired by photographs of concentration camp victims.  Should the religious background of the artist make a difference when evaluating such works?  Would your interpretation of the White Crucifixion change if you were told it was painted by a Christian artist?
  6. The Crucifixion has been painted by many artists who have declared that they are atheist, including Francis Bacon.  Does every image of the Crucifixion, regardless of the artist’s faith—or lack thereof—take on theological meaning?
  7. Why do you think Chagall blurred the ‘Ich bin Jude’ sign in the White Crucifixion, and also reversed the swastika on the armband of the Nazi Brownshirt?

5. Selected bibliography

  • Amishai-Maisels, Ziva. (1993) Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts.  Oxford:  Pergamon Press.
  • Amishai-Maisels, Ziva. (1995–96) Chagall’s Dedicated to Christ: Sources and Meanings.Jewish Art, 21–22, 68–94.
  • Amishai-Maisels, Ziva. (2001) Origins of the Jewish Jesus. In: Baigell, Matthew and Milly Heyd, eds. Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness and Modern Art. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, pp. 51–86.
  • Baal-Teshuva, Jacob. (1998) Marc Chagall.  London: Taschen.
  • Baigell, Matthew. (2002) Jewish Artists in New York: The Holocaust Years. New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press.
  • Bohm-Duchen, Monica. (1998) Chagall.  London: Phaidon.
  • Chagall, Marc. (1965) My Life. translated from French by Dorothy Williams. London: Peter Owen.
  • Chagall, Marc. (2003) Marc Chagall on Art and Culture, edited by Benjamin Harshav. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Roskies, David. (1984) Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

6. Further Reading

Jewish art/artists

  • The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times (2008) ed. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara and Jonathan Karp.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Bland, Kalman. (2000), The Artless Jew. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Jewish Identity in Modern Art History (1999) ed. Soussloff, Catherine.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.
  • Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts (2000) ed. Mann, Vivian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Julius, Anthony. (2000) Idolizing Pictures: Idolatry, Iconoclasm and Jewish Art. London:  Thames and Hudson.
  • Olin, Margaret. (2001) The Nation without Art: Examining Modern Discourses on Jewish Art.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Potok, Chaim. (1972) My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Knopf.
  • Rosen, Aaron. (2009) Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj. London: Legenda.
  • Too Jewish?: Challenging Traditional Identities (1996) ed. Kleeblatt, Norman. New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press.

Holocaust art

  • Mary Felstiner (1994), To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era.  Harper Collins.
  • Mark Godfrey (2007), Abstraction and the Holocaust. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Image and Remembrance: Representation and the Holocaust (2002), ed. Hornstein, Shelley and Florence Jacobowitz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Art Spiegelman (1996), The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.  New York: Pantheon.
  • James Young (2002), At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

7. Useful web resources

8. Images

  • Marc Chagall, Dedicated to Christ, 1912
  • Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938
  • Marc Chagall, Descent from the Cross, 1941
  • Marc Chagall, Yellow Crucifixion, 1943
  • Marc Chagall, The Crucified, 1944

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