White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall

White Crucifixion, 1938, Oil on canvas, 154.6 x 140 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Alfred S. Alschuler, 1946.925, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

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The Jewish Jesus

Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

The year before the outbreak of the Second World War, Jewish artist Marc Chagall explicitly portrayed Jesus as an emblem of Jewish suffering. Surrounding the cross in White Crucifixion, 1938, we see Jews under threat in scenes of attack, destruction, and flight.

White Crucifixion was painted in the context of synagogue-burnings in Munich and Nuremberg in the summer of 1938, the expulsion of Polish Jews living in Germany that October, and finally the pogrom of November 1938—Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass)—a foreshadowing of what would occur in Europe when war broke out. Chagall’s decision to create a large picture rather than, say, an intimate drawing was influenced by the paintings of German anti-Fascist artists who had already emphasized Jesus’s Jewishness, but his main source of encouragement was more local. French support for this emphasis had grown following the publication in 1937 of a book by the French Jesuit Joseph Bonsirven—The Jews and Jesus—a book which used modern historical scholarship to reassert Jesus’s Jewishness. Bonsirven cited the famous words of Israel Zangwill from his 1892 novel Children of the Ghetto: ‘the people of Christ has been the Christ of peoples’.

Chagall was extremely aware of his target audience. Feeling that the Jews did not need to be told about the difficulty of their situation—they were experiencing it personally—he therefore sought the most effective way to bring Jewish suffering to the attention of Christians. Thus he chose to invest the crucifixion, their most distinctive and most profound image, with Jewish content. He believed that Christians would understand the message of Jesus’s Jewishness from the prayer shawl girding his loins, the menorah surrounded by a halo of light that echoes Jesus’s halo, and the shtetl scenes of persecution. Above the cross, Chagall reproduced the words said to be on Pilate’s placard in John 19:19—‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews’. He did so in Aramaic: the language that Jesus, like most Jews of his day, probably spoke.

Many years later, Chagall’s approach proved more successful than the artist might have expected: Pope Francis I spoke of his affinity for this Jewish portrayal of Jesus and called White Crucifixion his favourite painting.