Painting the Jewish Jesus

‘Chagall: Love, War, And Exile’

Jesus is Jewish. Is there a more basic fact about him than that? Nothing has altered our understanding of Jesus more than our relatively recent attention to his Jewishness.

Yet the actual image of a Jewish Jesus hanging on a Cross still gives pause to both Jews and Christians. Marc Chagall, the Russian-born son of a Hasidic family, painted many such images—many more than most have ever seen. More than twenty-five of them have been collected in “Chagall: Love, War, and Exile,” at New York’s Jewish Museum (through February 4, 2014; free app with commentary and some of the paintings available at iTunes store). Though Chagall first painted the image of Jesus on the Cross as a student in Paris in his 1912 piece Calvary, this exhibit focuses on the 1930s and ’40s, when Chagall lived in exile, first in France and then the United States.

During the war years, the Crucifixion became a focus of Chagall’s work. Standing before them, the viewer encounters a Jesus whose Jewishness is more than merely notional. Chagall places that fact at the center of these works. I’ve seen some of these paintings before: White Crucifixion at the Art Institute of Chicago and Calvary at New York’s Museum...

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.