Back in September, The Chicago Tribune reported that one of the city’s beloved paintings, Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion (1938), will be moving from the Art Institute of Chicago to Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi for a five month religious art exhibit. During this time, organizers hope to move the painting to the Florence Baptistery so it can come face to face with one of its biggest fan - Pope Francis. At the beginning of his papacy, Francis mentioned in an interview published in America Magazine that Chagall’s piece was one of his favorite works of art.
Among the great painters, I admire Caravaggio; his paintings speak to me. But also Chagall, with his ‘White Crucifixion.’
In the seemingly endless reign of #PopeFrancis as a trending topic, people have taken this to mean that Chagall’s painting is His Holiness’ favorite. That may very well be the case, but we still don’t know why. Francis hasn’t given much indication as to why he finds himself particularly drawn to this piece. Perhaps some insight into the original intention and gravity of this painting will shed light on the pope’s affinity for White Crucifixion.
First, let’s talk about Marc Chagall. We are in the midst of celebrating the 50th year since Bl. Pope Paul VI’s declaration of Nostra Aetate, a document that has shaped the relationship between the Church and the world’s religions in modern society. Therefore, it seems appropriate that Paul VI’s successor would identify a Russian-Jew painter among his favorites. Born in the Russian town of Vitebsk in 1887, Marc Chagall grew up in a working-class Jewish world. He lived a life scandalized by two horrific wars. Before his death in 1985, he was respected as a world-renowned artist and an advocate for the plight of the European Jewish population.
What’s interesting about Chagall is his unique obsession with the theme of the Crucifixion. He starts in 1912 with Golgotha, a play on the traditional iconography of Christ’s death with some twists. Christ on the Cross is shown as an innocent child. St. John the Beloved and the Blessed Virgin are representations of Chagall’s parents. He later comments that the Christ figure symbolized himself. From the start of his fascination with the Crucifixion theme, Chagall is able to identify himself with Christ.
In Chagall’s later works like the White Crucifixion, he extends this theme by identifying the dead or dying Christ with the Jews as a whole. In doing so, he plays into a tension between the Jewish and Christian people. For centuries, Christ’s death fueled Christian hatred of Jews and led to their mass persecution. Jews during Chagall’s time were still dealing with the effects of a deep Christian misunderstanding of the Crucifixion. While the cross was a symbol of hope and resurrection for Christians, it was also seen by Jew as the cause of anti-Semitic actions.
Fully aware of that tension, Chagall intentionally engages with the subject. Throughout his career, Chagall loves to use the image of the Crucifixion to somehow unite his Jewish and Christian audience. He consistently portrays Christ as a Jewish martyr - a reminder to his fellow Jews. Similarly, he uses the Christian iconography to speak to a Christian audience. Especially in the midst of the Holocaust, Chagall wanted to remind the Christian world that Jesus Christ was in fact a Jew. These paintings act as bold statements against the horrors of hatred and disunity.
White Crucifixion wasn’t Chagall’s last Crucifixion painting, but it is considered to be his greatest. Unlike his other works filled with vibrant color, he strips the canvas bare to highlight desperation and sadness. Then, he fills the scene with a combination of Jewish, Christian, and contemporary imagery.
Here, Jesus hangs on a tau-shaped cross directly in the center of the canvas. He is the obvious focus of the composition. Instead of a Crown of Thorns, Christ is wearing a headscarf. Instead of a the traditional loin cloth, Christ is wrapped in a Jewish ritual prayer shawl. Above his head, the inscription reads “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in Hebrew-Aramaic. Below his feet, instead of Our Lady, St. John, or St. Mary Magdalene, Chagall paints a symbol of the menorah. These emphasize Jesus’ nature as a Jewish martyr. Chagall wants his audience to understand that Jesus is primarily a suffering Jew on the cross. Yet, he does not forego all Christian imagery. We can see a halo behind Christ’s head and a beam of light directed toward him. It is almost reminiscent of traditional depictions of the Baptism in the Jordan.
Chagall paints this during the Second World War, just as reports are coming out of the Nazis attacks on European Jews. We see this reflected in the scenes around the cross. Just as traditional Byzantine icons show scenes of Christ’s life or the lives of the saints around the cross, Chagall wants the audience to draw a connection between Jesus and these scenes. Just below the Cross, a Jewish man clutches Torah scrolls while a Jewish woman desperately holds onto her child. A man with a white sign that originally read “Ich bin Jude” (I am a Jew) runs away and alludes to the German practice of segregating Jews. To the right of the cross, Chagall paints a Jewish synagogue is being burned down. Scholars have found evidence that there were originally swastikas painted on the soldier’s arm and the flag behind the synagogue. He paints over them to avoid Nazi’s destruction of the painting. To the left of the cross, a boat of Jewish people desperately tries to leave as their shtetl (village) is also being burned to the ground. There is a level of ambiguity with the soldiers running toward the village. Are they Nazis sent to continue the destruction or are they the Soviets, supposed saviors of the people? Finally, above the cross float figures from the Old Testament, weeping at the destruction they see.
This painting offers a very strong statement to illuminate the destruction and violence that Jews were facing at the time. Once we understand how deeply rooted this painting is in our history, it is easy to see why the Pope loves it so much. In the midst of the chaos of the world, we can look at the face of Christ. Yes, he is a martyr. Yes, he does suffer. But, there seems to be a sense of peace in his face. May we, like Pope Francis, be inspired by this painting to respond to the needs of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.