|White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall|
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 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 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,) which 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.