Last August in Los Angeles, I saw an early, rough edit of Mel Gibson’s controversial new film, The Passion of the Christ. Reviled as anti-Semitic by some who have not even seen it, I judged the version I saw free from explicit anti-Semitism, for three reasons. First, it placed a large onus for the crucifixion on the Romans. Second, it depicted disagreements among the Jewish authorities about Jesus’ punishment, and repeatedly showed Jews who were sympathetic to Jesus. Finally, it omitted the oft-cited phrase from Matthew’s Gospel (“his blood be on us and on our people”), a phrase that has notoriously been used to justify violence against Jews. And it portrayed Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” as referring to even those Jewish authorities who had urged his condemnation. Still, my hunch is that some Jews will intensely dislike the film. Historically, the story of Christ’s death and the symbol of the cross are so closely associated with anti-Semitism that many Jews will be understandably repulsed by Gibson’s movie.

Strangely, The Passion has drawn me to a reconsideration and greater appreciation of Marc Chagall’s multiple renditions of the crucifixion. Last October, San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art presented a stunning retrospective of Chagall’s paintings. In the period between 1938 (the year of Kristallnacht) and the end of World War II, Chagall (1887–1985), the Russian-born surrealist, obsessed about Jesus as a sacrificed Jew and as a symbol of humanity’s suffering. What might we learn from this quintessential Jewish artist about the iconic significance of the cross? For Chagall, the cross became a way to express his deep, inexpressible grief for the mass murder of his fellow Jews. His work serves as a kind of test case of one possible modern Jewish appropriation of the cross, one from which Christians might profitably learn.

Two of Chagall’s most famous paintings of the crucifixion are located in U.S. museums. His 1912 Calvary is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his White Crucifixion hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. Calvary is a striking canvas on several counts. Its scale, and the multiple preparatory sketches Chagall executed for it, indicates that he saw it as a particularly important painting. He included it (originally titled Dedicated to Christ) in his first shows outside Russia—at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1912 and in Berline in 1914. Calvary represents a double-break for Chagall—both from the cultural boundaries of his Hasidic upbringing and from the strictures of the artistic world’s avant-garde. Only in the free artistic air of Paris, and far from his boyhood shtetl, could Chagall have ventured such a painting.

In Paris, Chagall came under the personal and artistic influence of the cubist Robert Delaunay, whose wife, Sonya, was a Russian Jew. Like Picasso and Braque, Delaunay was a collagist. Calvary, with its floating blocks of greens and reds and abstract forms, has a more distinctive cubist character than most of Chagall’s later paintings. At the center of the painting is an unmistakable Christ on a cross (provocatively a child Christ), with the figures of Mary and John at his side. In the background, Joseph of Arimathaea is depicted bearing a ladder. This crucified Christ-child wears a Jewish prayer shawl for a loin cloth.

Chagall had studied many of the classical crucifixion paintings in the Louvre. In this early canvas, he deploys the deconstructive strategy of cubism, but without following either cubism’s eschewing of cultural references or its increasingly nonrepresentational and self-contained character. The fragmentation in his cubist technique in no way obliterates the clear narrative of the cross. The picture is unmistakably suffused with a figurative and iconic religious significance.

On several occasions (first in Paris, later back in Russia during and after World War I), Chagall experimented with abstract and geometric forms. After the Russian revolution, for example, he worked with abstract expressionist Kazimir Malevich and included suprematism motifs in his famous murals for a Jewish theater in Moscow. Still, he rejected both pure cubism and Malevich’s suprematism, which exalted the “supremacy of pure feeling” over any effort at the representation of reality. For Chagall, abstract art was a product of a mechanistic world that lacked a sense of God. For him, the removal of figurative aspects from painting was tantamount to a desire to make a world without God. Thus he shrank from the antihuman tendencies he discerned in the avant-garde. Throughout his career, Chagall’s work interwove spirituality, Jewish cultural life and folklore, and a close dialogue with the avant-garde.

Chagall stated unequivocally: “If I were not a Jew (with the content I put into that word), I wouldn’t have been an artist or I would be a different artist altogether.” A deeply spiritual man, he was not disturbed when his art was dubbed too mystical. He once told his granddaughter, “When I paint, I pray.” Although not tempted to become a Christian, he cultivated a genuine reverence for Christ and once averred: “For me, Christ was a great poet, the teaching of whose poetry has been forgotten by the modern world.” Later, he told his son, David, that he saw Jesus in the line of the great Jewish prophets.

Between Calvary of 1912 and White Crucifixion of 1938, Chagall painted few crucifixion scenes. Yet during World War II and in his last years images of the cross proliferated in his work. He painted numerous Old Testament scenes which included cross motifs. In part because of a commission from his art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, to render scenes of a circus, many of Chagall’s portraits during this period were of acrobats and clowns (like the crucifixion, a lifelong obsession with him). These, too, bear implicit references to Christ. Chagall once put it this way: “I have always considered clowns, acrobats, and actors as tragically human; to me they resemble the characters of certain religious paintings. And even today, when I paint a crucifixion or another religious painting, I feel almost the same emotions that I experience while painting circus people.”

Chagall was a victim of Nazi persecution. German museums were ordered to remove his work, and three of his pieces were officially designated degenerative art. In 1943, he had to flee France. Nor was he unaware of the silence of so many Christians during the Holocaust. Speaking of Jewish suffering in pogroms and, later, in the Holocaust, Chagall cried out: “Two thousand years of ‘Christianity’ in the world, say whatever you like but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent.” In 1944, in a speech to the Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists, and Scientists, Chagall indicted his Christian fellow artists also: “I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life does not concern them.” In an address relayed to the Jewish people of Paris in 1946, Chagall spoke poignantly of Jewish suffering: “We lost our dear ones. Our house is empty, even when we are in it. We are crying and cannot cry them out of our system. We are seeking them up above in the clouds. It is only we—without them.”

Yet, paradoxically, it was to the crucified Christ that Chagall turned as a universal symbol of suffering, and to which he conjoined the anguish and loss of the Jews. In a speech to the Jewish Writers Committee in New York in 1947, he said that “the ‘crucifixions’ in the streets of Vitebsk [portrayed in White Crucifixion] and other cities take on the tragic look of the crucified Christ himself.” Franz Meyer, Chagall’s biographer, notes that White Crucifixion was “the first in a long series,” and adds:

Although Christ is the central figure, this is by no means a Christian picture....Round his loins, Christ wears a loin cloth with two black stripes resembling the Jewish tallith, and at his feet burns the seven-branched candlestick....But, most important of all, this Christ’s relation to the world differs entirely from that in all Christian representations of the crucifixion. There... all suffering is concentrated in Christ, transferred to him in order that he may overcome it by his sacrifice. Here instead, though all the suffering of the world is mirrored in the crucifixion, suffering remains man’s lasting fate and is not abolished by Christ’s death.

In White Crucifixion, Jewish symbols abound. A synagogue burns and the painting shows the torching of Torah scrolls, the lamentation of Jewish elders, and fleeing Jewish figures. At the foot of the cross lies a menorah. Jesus is not the only one suffering, nor is his suffering depicted as redemptive. Meyer conveys its tone: “For Chagall, suffering remains man’s lasting fate. It is not his divine but his human nature that Christ’s suffering preserves.”

Much the same image of a Jewish, yet nonmessianic, Jesus is found in Yellow Crucifixion (1943), now at the Pompidou Center in Paris. On the cross, Jesus wears the phylacteries of a devout Jew and holds the Torah scroll in his right hand. Again, Chagall pictures him encircled by a group of fleeing, suffering Jews. During the same period, Chagall reworked a canvas first begun in 1923, Fall of the Angel, which teems with apocalyptic images. In many of his wartime paintings, Chagall abandoned his bright colors (reminiscent of Matisse’s blues, pastels, and yellows) for a more somber palette of reds and blacks. Fall of the Angel juxtaposes a Jewish figure holding a scroll and a monster-like red angel; next to the angel are a virgin and child (another frequent Chagall theme), and in a somber right-hand portion of the canvas a cross and a candle stand sentinel.

During the war and in its immediate aftermath, Chagall executed his famous triptych, Resistance, Resurrection, and Liberation. In the first two panels (evocative of both the horrors of war and of the failure of the Russian Revolution to achieve genuine liberation), blood-red color evokes the calamity of war. In Resistance, a violent fire devastates a Russian village while a seemingly helpless victim—Christ—hangs at the center. In Resurrection, a Jew with the Torah stands to the left of the cross, a woman with a baby stretches out her arms to the crucified one, and Chagall depicts himself falling upside down next to Jesus’ corpus, as if he himself were being crucified. These two works posit the idea that the persecution of the Jewish people will continue, but the luminous figure of Jesus on the cross dominates both. The only hope lies in divine and human love. Perhaps significantly, the third panel, Liberation, depicts Jewish scenes of the family, the Sabbath, a marriage ceremony, a fiddler, all in brighter, more radiant colors. Jesus is absent here, perhaps an indication that the fellow sufferer is not a redeemer or a liberator.

While Jewish reaction to Chagall’s crucifixion scenes, during and immediately after the war, generally accepted his crucifixion motif as a nonmessianic symbol of Jewish martyrdom and suffering, his later work remains more controversial. In those years, Chagall painted an expansive series of canvases based on the Hebrew Scriptures, titled Biblical Messages. They included paintings of man’s creation, the sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob’s ladder, the Exodus, Moses receiving the Law, and David playing the lyre. When Chagall placed a crucifixion in the background of his Jacob’s Ladder or Creation of Man, he seemed to invite a reading of his iconography that included a Christian fulfillment of Jewish expectations. His longtime friend, the Catholic convert Raïssa Maritain, said that “with a sure instinct, he showed in each of his Christ paintings the indestructible link between the Old Testament and the New. The Old Testament was the harbinger of the New and the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old.” In fact, Chagall included her quote in the catalogue of one of his retrospectives.

The motif is most noticeable in his 1955 painting The Crossing of the Red Sea. In the dark, upper left-hand corner, a cross looms, as if representing a far echo of the Hebrews’ deliverance. The cross also appears, notably, in canvases of the Exodus and in his famous Sacrifice of Isaac, where Jesus, carrying the cross, is superimposed on the background, and the red color spilling on Abraham streams down from the crucifixion in the top right-hand corner. Isaac’s sacrifice is here conjoined with the crucifixion, suggesting that Jesus’ death may signify a kind of blood atonement.

Chagall also wove his Isaac-Christ imagery into a tapestry, Exodus, commissioned for the Knesset in Jerusalem. As Ziva Amishai-Maisels notes in a book on Chagall’s tapestries and mosaics:

This combination was an acceptable one within a Christian context, in which Isaac was a prefiguration of Christ and the sacrifice a prophecy of the crucifixion. It was not a combination which would have been acceptable in the Knesset, and Chagall was counseled against it. But the artist’s personal belief in Christ as the perfect symbol of the suffering Jew could not be easily silenced. Christ does not appear, but Isaac is placed on the altar with his arms spread wide in the shape of a cross...quite different from Isaac’s previous position in similar scenes.

As the controversy over Mel Gibson’s film intensifies and Christians begin the season of Lent, what lessons do Chagall’s depictions of Christ offer? I venture the following reflections.

Some respected Jewish thinkers find the symbol of the cross irredeemable. It is too laden with historical misuse and anti-Semitic provocation. Moreover, they see the cross as inseparable from the idea of supersessionism, the belief that the new covenant in Christ simply annuls God’s original covenant with his people Israel. As a consequence, they think that Christians should simply excise the Passion narrative from their Scriptures and suppress representations of the cross in their churches.

However, most Jewish thinkers understand that the Passion is too central to the Gospels and too dear to Christians. To expunge the Passion would be tantamount to asking Christians to apostatize. Moreover, as Chagall’s many crucifixions demonstrate, the symbol of the cross is not inherently anti-Semitic. It can express and embody Jewish suffering as well as Christian hopes.

Still, Christians do need tutoring, as James Carroll made clear in Constantine’s Sword. Because of the way the cross has been misused, it is a problematic icon. During the Crusades and up to and including our times, it has too often served as an abetment for those who accuse Jews of being Christ-killers. Christians would do well to stand long under the shadow of Chagall’s White Crucifixion, and to recognize that Jesus neither totally subsumes, redeems, nor removes Jewish suffering.

In his preface to Night, Elie Wiesel’s classic narrative of the death camps, François Mauriac tries to wrestle with these realities. In the book, Wiesel describes his horror at witnessing three hangings (one of a young boy), and the plangent query of a man behind him asking: “Where is God now?” Wiesel attests that as he looked on, he heard a voice within him answering: “Where is he? Here he is—he is hanging here on the gallows.” In reading Night, Mauriac came to understand that the cross remains a symbol that scandalizes—especially when employed as a sign of power and triumphalism—and that it continues to be a stumbling block. Mauriac’s words to the young Wiesel serve as a clue to how Jews and Christians can look together at the cross and at the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust:

And I who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother, who may have resembled him—the Crucified, whose cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that conformity between the cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished?...But I could only embrace him, weeping.

In a remarkable 1987 essay in the Christian Century, Karl Plank, a professor of religion, proposed that Christians not speak of the cross’s redemption in any way that would trifle with or stifle the victim’s cry. He suggested that Mauriac’s tearful embrace of Wiesel provides us with three fundamental stances that should shape our response to Jesus’ cross after the Shoah: silence, humility, and waiting together for God. Mauriac’s silence is not a denial of his faith, but a hushing of any easy utterance about the mystery of suffering. In light of the Holocaust, the cross can only be a deep personal confession. It can never presume to speak for any other victim, or to impose its symbolic power on an unwilling other. As St. Paul put it, the cross shatters all pretentious illusions about strength, wisdom, and power (1 Cor 1:18–31). Humility becomes the apt response, because in the shadow of the cross, all of us stand as guilty bystanders. No one can remain complacent when confronted by another’s suffering. Finally, Mauriac’s tears and his embrace signal a common waiting for the coming again of God.

Plank warned that “in a world of victims, our language of victory—the language of redemption—may alienate, echoing only the speech of oppressors.” He reminds Christians that the cross embodies both an already and a not yet. It remains for us Christians an eschatological symbol. “To approach the cross with too much faith, to stand in its shadow with certain confidence of Easter light, is finally to confront no cross at all....Amid the creation which groans for redemption, the church must stand as if before Easter, open to its inbreaking, but unassuming of its prerogative. There, in the community of victims and witnesses, the faithful silently wait together for the kingdom of God. There the church must express its humility, for, as the Holocaust chronicles make starkly clear, the Lord whom the church confesses is also its victim.”


Related: Painter of a Lost World, by Susannah Rutherglen
Catholics and the Shoah, by Peter Manseau

John A. Coleman, SJ, is Casassa Professor of Social Justice at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.
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Published in the 2004-02-27 issue: View Contents
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