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April 05, 2012 - Image 64

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2012-04-05

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arts & entertainment

Chagall's Gift

With striking
Jewish features,
Marc Chagall's

The White
Crucifixion captures

the historic
of Judaism and
particularly during

Stephen Whitfield
JointMedia News Service


he scheduling of Passover and
Easter at close to the same
moment on the calendar this year
can remind Jews of the historic entangle-
ment of the two faiths.
For the adherents of Judaism, the
holiday celebrates national liberation
from bondage, which is the prelude to
the emergence of an ethical monotheism
that would henceforth be based upon
land and law. The claim that Christianity
advances is of course far more explicitly
and unambiguously Universalist — after
suffering and sacrifice and death, a res-
urrection can offer hope for the redemp-
tion of humanity itself.
Both of these holidays are occasions
for gratitude and for optimism, but
against a backdrop of the sting of the
lash and the infliction of unwarranted
cruelty. So this is a season to contemplate
the legacy of an artist who was haunted
by the troublesome implications of the
entanglement of Passover and Easter.
Has any painter managed to capture
more exuberantly, more indelibly, the
possibilities of love and liberty than Marc
Chagall? In the popular imagination, he
is responsible for those cheerful images
of bouquets and of bovine contentment.
His brides float giddily above Paris; his
fiddlers poise precariously on roofs but
offer the pleasures of music and dance.
Chagall was able to deploy the bright-
est of colors to tap into the euphoria


April 5 • 2012

tsarist rampages seem an anachronism
from a more civilized era.
Red flags are depicted at the top left
E of the painting, but the regime that suc-
ceeded the Romanovs hardly assures
liberation. On the top right is the flag
of Lithuania, where Judaic learning had
flourished and where anti-Semitism was
commonplace. That nation's own inde-
pendence would be lost two years later as
the rival totalitarian powers divided the
early spoils of the Second World War.
What led Chagall to transform the pas-
sion of Christ in this way?
In an incisive book on the painter, pub-
lished in 2007, Jonathan Wilson of Tufts
University conjectures that there was no
precedent in the long annals of Jewish
martyrdom that could match in historic
influence the Crucifixion. Nothing else
could match its ambiguous, inescapable
"Judeo-Christian" magnitude, its capacity
to inspire awe and even a sense of meta-
physical mystery.
No other subject might suggest to
believers in a risen "Son of God" what the
co-religionists of Jesus were enduring in
1938, on a continent that the Third Reich
was about to dominate and devastate. No
other sign of agony might elicit sympathy
for a beleaguered people that a sister
faith could not — and would not — pro-
The best known and the most fre-
quently portrayed Jew in history would
have to symbolize for Chagall the
Instead of a loincloth covering the oth- anonymous and random deaths that the
erwise naked Jesus, he is wrapped in a
mechanisms of genocidal fury would
tallit. Surrounding him is not the jeering
soon inflict.
mob medieval painters sometimes por-
The effect worked, at least for the
trayed, but instead the inhabitants of the
eminent Catholic philosopher Jacques
shtetl. Instead of the pastoral charm that
Maritain. "Israel is climbing Calvary,"
Chagall characteristically evoked, there
he wrote in 1941. "As in Marc Chagall's
is chaos, with an atmosphere of terror
beautiful painting, the poor Jews, without
and flight enveloping those fragile Torah
understanding it, are swept along in the
great tempest of the Crucifixion!'
The palette of The White Crucifixion is
Not until after his bar mitzvah did
recognizably Chagall's, but the brightest
Chagall change his first name from
color in this painting is flame-orange;
Moshe, the name of the liberator from
and a Nazi thug, wearing an armband, is
Egyptian bondage.
burning down a synagogue. Here was a
But in depicting Jesus in so transfor-
portent of the consuming fire from which mative a setting as The White Crucifixion,
precious few would be spared. Desperate
Chagall made from the seasonal overlap-
refugees hover on a boat. (Could Chagall
ping of Passover and Easter a painting
have anticipated his own good fortune in
that manages to blend his flair for sum-
escaping across the Atlantic three years
moning beauty with the gift of tragic
The White Crucifixion occurs in the
context of a pogrom, though the painter
Stephen J. Whitfield holds the Max Richter
could scarcely be expected to have envi-
Chair in American Civilization at Brandeis
sioned a Final Solution that would make


Marc Chagall: The White Crucifixion, 1938.

that can sometimes punctuate human
experience. His canvases, his murals and
his stained-glass windows can bring
smiles to viewers but without forfeiting
the admiration of serious critics and
No major figure in the span of Western
art was more Jewish. And, yet, Chagall
was hardly parochial, having done com-
missions for cathedrals in Metz, Reims,
Zurich and elsewhere.
In 1938 he produced a remarkable
painting of Jesus on the cross. The White
Crucifixion re-imagines the single most
iconic moment in the mythology of
Christianity, and yet makes that rever-
berant representation a strikingly Jewish
phenomenon as well.
This somber painting, which belongs
to the Art Institute of Chicago, is some-
thing of an anomaly among the artist's
odes to joy. But then, in one sense, to
claim that Jesus was anything other than
a Jew is as odd as classifying Jefferson as
something other than an American.

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