All four Gospels record the fact that an inscription was written on a placard and placed above Jesus’s head on the cross. They seem to be in full agreement on its importance even though they differ on the placard’s precise wording.
Matthew (27:37) and Mark (15:26) describe it as a record of the ‘charge against him’ (though in its brevity it reads ambiguously more like a description than a charge): ‘This is Jesus the King of the Jews’ (Matthew 27:37); ‘The King of the Jews’ (Mark 15:26). Luke refers to it as an inscription, and the wording is slightly different again: ‘This is the King of the Jews’ (Luke 23:38).
John, like Luke, does not use the word ‘charge’ (aitia)—it is called simply a ‘title’ (titlos)—and attributes the placard to Pontius Pilate. He offers a fourth form of the wording: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’ (John 19:19), and adds that it was written in three languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. In visual depictions of the crucifixion, this title frequently appears in contracted form as INRI (the first letter of each of the words in their Latin form).
The cross therefore speaks ‘multiply’ through its ‘title’—not only in different versions, but also in different languages.
The connection between the three works presented in this exhibition may be the crucified figure of Jesus but each one takes the story of the crucifixion down a different path. The artists extend the ‘polyphony’ of the placard, and of the cross itself, reopening the question of who we may expect (or be surprised) to find crucified before us.
Marc Chagall’s work is a cry against anti-Semitism—using the ultimate image of the suffering Jesus, and portraying him as a Jew in the midst of the anti-Semitic attacks on Jews that preceded the Holocaust. He subverts the ecclesiastical convention of an abbreviated INRI by reproducing the words of the placard in full, and he subverts John’s account (and perhaps Pilate too) by rendering them in Aramaic: Yeshu ha-notzri malka dihuda’ei—making the placard even more many-voiced than it was before. His intention was to return viewers to a sense of Jesus’s historical Jewishness, since the prevailing language among Jews in the Second Temple period was Aramaic.
Moshe Castel’s piece is a personal one—taking the image of the Crucified at a personal level and using it in his time of deep sorrow at the loss of his loved ones. A few years after the Holocaust, and in the same year that the State of Israel was inaugurated, his work takes the figure of Jesus to a solely personal realm. The inscription above his cross—‘Castel the Jew’—refers to the original inscription according to the Gospels, but with a significant change: the artist’s name replaces that of Jesus.
Igael Tumarkin’s Bedouin Crucifixion is a political statement about the Israeli authorities and their unfair treatment of the weak Bedouin culture. The wheel has turned—from being a symbol of Jewish suffering, the crucifixion is now a symbol of the Bedouin society under Israeli control. Harnessing the way that the Christian image of the crucifixion has become an almost universal symbol of ultimate sacrifice, Tumarkin makes a sharp political statement.
The Jesuit Joseph Bonsirven, who influenced Chagall, observed that for Jews the cross is not ‘the symbol of a self-sacrificing love, nor the sign of a redeeming hope, nor an emblem of peace, but the symbol of persecution, oppression, discrimination’. This may help us to understand how these three works came to be made by Jewish artists, each of whom had a deep connection to the suffering figure of Jesus and found their own meanings in it: collective, personal, and political—and perhaps also universal.
37And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.”
26And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”
38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
19Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21The chief priests of the Jews then said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’ ” 22Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”