Marc Chagall was haunted by the image of Christ as Jewish martyr, not least following the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany. The Yellow Crucifixion, painted in 1943, is one of several crucifixion scenes Chagall produced, which scandalized Jew and Christian alike.
Christ on the cross is unmistakably a Jewish man, wearing tefillin on his head and left arm. Moreover, trampling on centuries of artistic convention, and in contrast to his earlier and more famous White Crucifixion (1938), Chagall has de-centred the cross. It has yielded its place to an open Torah-scroll. Or perhaps the two symbols—the Torah and the cross—belong together, connected by Christ’s outstretched right arm, and both illuminated by the candle held by a flying angel, blowing a shofar.
Moreover, the crucified is surrounded by scenes of Jewish persecution and displacement. A town burns below the cross to the right. At bottom centre, a Jewish mother flees with her child, recalling the Christian iconography of the Flight into Egypt. The boat on the left is the Struma, sunk off the coast of Turkey in 1942 with nearly eight hundred Jewish émigrés on board. Here is a potent image of European Jews sharing in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13). Or rather, the crucified Christ as the archetypal suffering Jew.
1 Peter originally addressed converts from paganism, ostracized by family and taunted by neighbours for their association with the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth. Yet by Chagall’s time, the tables have dramatically turned. Now it is Jesus’s co-religionists who find themselves reproached, ostracized, and forced to flee by those who bear his name. Nor, tragically, is this something new. Centuries of Christian antisemitism have prepared the ground. Far from being reviled ‘for the name of Christ’, his followers have used that name to revile others. Chagall’s shocking variation on a familiar theme foregrounds the complicity of European Christians in the sufferings of their Jewish brethren.
Amishai-Maisels, Ziva. 1993. Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts (Oxford and New York: Pergamon Press), ch. 3
Bohn-Duchen, Monica. 2010. ‘Images of Jesus in the Work of Marc Chagall: Christian Redeemer or Jewish Martyr?’, in Cross Purposes: Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion, ed. by Nathaniel Hepburn (Paddock Wood: Mascalls Gallery), pp. 68–71
Jeffrey, David Lyle. 2012. ‘Meditation and Atonement in the Art of Marc Chagall’, Religion and the Arts 16: 211–30
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; 16yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God. 17For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18And
19Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator.