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The Crucifixions of Marc Chagall - Jesus Crucified and the Martyrdom of the Jewish People
The following article is an extract from a longer one entitled: Gesi, nell'Arte Ebraica Contemporanea (Jesus in Contemporary Jewish Art), translated and reproduced here through the very kind permirsion of the author and of the editors of SEVER (Studi, Ricerche) Milan, No. 27, July-September 1984.
The author, Reny) Fabris began by introducing several Jewish artists who, in recent times, have depicted Jesus in their works of art: Mark Antokolsky, Maurycy Gottlieb, Max Liebermann in the last century, Jakob Steinhardt) Ephraim Moses Liken and others in this. This is seen as one sign among others that there are Jews willing to recognize in Jesus of Nazareth one of their eminent sons. Fabris remarks that, on the contrary, the Jewishness of Jesus for Christian artists is most often vague, not clearly apparent if not completely absent.
When one thinks of Jesus in contemporary Jewish art, the first artist who comes to mind is Marc Chagall, who died on March 29 in his ninety-seventh year. The author introduces us to one special aspect of this prolific artist's work and life.
His series of crucifixions begins with the Golgotha of 1912, an enormous canvas which was exhibited in Berlin in 1913 with the tide Dedicated to Christ. in a blaze of green, red, blue and yellow light he presents the disconcerting image of a baby hanging on a cross, mourned by a gigantic Sr. John and a tiny Mary. A bearded man with a ladder in hand is standing by, while in the distance a boat glides over dark waters towards an island covered with lush vegetation. The critics speak of the many levels of meaning to be found in this work, as in all Chagall's pictures. Chagall himself admits: The crucifixion which I painted in the years 1908-1912 (the one we arc chiefly concerned with here, and bearing in mind the relationship between the choice of theme and the Jewish personality of the artist) is for me expressive of human decadence rather than dogmatic statement.
The White Crucifixion of 1938 is perhaps the best-known painting in which the figure of Jesus appears.
Most probably the inspiration of the artist derives from the events which occurred in that year, so terrible for the Jews: the destruction of the synagogues in Munich and Nuremberg, Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night") in Germany and the deportation of Jews in Poland. Some details in the painting recall these events: the elderly Jew who carries round his neck the placard !eh bin Jude, the synagogue in flames, the sacred objects scattered around. Franz Meyer' says that the scenes around the cross constitute an exemplary Jewish martyrology. Jesus appears in bold relief in the centre, bathed in light which falls obliquely from heaven, his loins girt with the ta/lit on which is woven the double black stripe. lie hangs on a cross bearing the Aramaic inscription Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews under the Latin INRI. At the foot of the cross burns the menorah, the Jewish seven-branched candlestick.
The Jewish Jesus of the White Crucifixion seems to encapsulate the tragedy of the Jewish people. The year before Chagall painted this picture, Joseph Bonsirvin, S.J. published his book The Jews and Jesus, in which Ziva Amishai-Maisels finds words which sum up Chagall's Crucifixion:
Like Jesus, the Jews have never ceased climbing Golgotha; like him, they are forever nailed to the cross.
In the forties even Jacques Maritain perceived that the passion of Israel increasingly takes the form of the Cross; with his acute Christian understanding he goes on to say:
"In the passion of Israel Christ suffers and acts as Shepherd of Zion and Messiah of Israel, in order gradually to mould his own people to his own likeness." 2
The identification of Jesus with the Jewish people and, we must add, of the Jewish people with Jesus, is the theme of other works by Chagall, painted during the dramatic years of the extermination of the Jews.
The Yellow Crucifixion, begun in 1942 and completed in 1943, seems to be inspired by the tragic episode of the sinking in the Black Sea of the ship Struma, in which more than seven hundred and fifty Jewish refugees perished. Even in this painting Jesus on the cross is the predominant feature, proclaiming his Jewishness by the taint round his loins and the tefillin, the phylacteries, fastened on arm and forehead. The wearing of the phylacteries by Jews is yet another thing prescribed by the Bible:
"You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes" (Dent 11:18).
In this picture the right arm of the Jewish Jesus is replaced symbolically by the scrolls of the Torah, which are illuminated by the candle held up by an angel sounding the shofar. In Jewish tradition the shofar is the ram's horn which commemorates the sacrifice of Isaac; its sound is a call to repentance, but also it proclaims the redemption of the people in the land of their fathers. Beneath the crucifix and the Torah, houses are burning, women are drowning, multitudes are fleeing from persecution.
In the painting Obsession (1943), themes of suffering are combined with those of war. The green, uncouth and disproportionately large figure of Christ nailed to the cross cuts transversely across the space which blazes with the red of the flames3
In The Crucified of 1944, the deserted street through a snow-covered village is flanked by three crosses; to one of them is nailed a Jew with a placard round his neck; corpses lie on the ground close to the snowbound doors of the houses. It can be surmised that Chagall got his inspiration for this composition from another Jewish artist, Wilhelm Wachtel, who in 1920 represented Christ in the District of the Pogrom.
The symbolism of the cock
In the two Crucifixions of 1941, one entitled Descent from the Cross and the other Blue Crucifixion, Chagall depicts a cock and a man with the head of a cock, surrounded by the usual scenes of destruction. This beast appears frequently in the paintings of Chagall: if it can he said that an element of psychic power speaks in the image of the cock, an element drawn unconsciously from the cultural heritage of the artist, there can also be seen in it a side-long glance at the ritual sacrifice of a cock, which is part of the purification ceremony preceding the Day of Atonement, Meyer reminds us that Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, a German rabbi of the XIII century, prohibits the representation of the human face in the synagogue, but allows men to be depicted with animal heads: on the basis of this norm Jews, to distinguish them from non-Jews and angels, are given the heads of birds. In the Descent of Chagall, it is a man with the head of a cock who supports the body of Jesus, carrying it down a ladder, which is leaning against the cross.
After the war and the catastrophic extermination of the Jews, Chagall continued to depict the Crucifixion, although not within the same framework of tragedy. Several examples come to mind; the Resurrection at the River of 1947, the Quai de la Tournelle of 1953 and, among the later works of the artist, the Job of 1975. In the latter, the suffering biblical figure is surrounded by a multitude of Jews lost in admiration and prayer, a multitude which merges into a background in which there is still to be seen a man raised up on a cross.
In another series of very interesting works the artist paints a self-portrait, while the Crucifixion is shown as a picture within the larger painting. Perhaps the most suggestive of these is the Self-Portrait with Wall Clock of 1946; in the picture the Christ is being comforted by a woman clothed in white bridal garments, and there is a cock behind his head. The artist depicts himself with two heads branching out of the body, one human and green in colour, the other that of an animal and in red.
Critics stress that the self-portraiture of Chagall reveals the duality in every human being, but perhaps this duality refers more to contradictions sensed by the artist in presence of the crucified Christ.
As to the woman clothed in white who is close to Jesus, it has to be remembered that in the Vitebsk of his infancy, Chagall — as Elisa Debenedetti explains — was accustomed to associate white clothes and hangings with penitence and suffering.° In fact, officiants in the synagogue wear white on days of penitence.
The Jesus of Chagall
In some of his works Chagall depicts Moses with the crucified Jesus. Several come to mind: the Crossing of the Red Sea 1945-1955; the Christ with Imprints of Hands 1952-1956; the Crucifixion and Moses 19541959. Moses, with the tables of the Law in his hands and two rays of light springing from his head, always fixes his gaze on Jesus, who has his loins covered with the tallit. The interpretation of the ancient midrash of Rabbi Akiba, as given by Robert Aron, comes to mind. Through divine intervention, Moses on Sinai is able to hear the discourses of his interpreters in succeeding generations and, while not understanding them, nevertheless solemnly approves them; Aron places Jesus among the interpreters of Moses.5
What significance does the Crucifixion have in the paintings of Chagall? In order to answer this difficult question it is essential to turn to the artist's own explanations. Even then, it has to he asked whether these are sufficient!
In 1944 Chagall said:
"For me Christ is a great poet, the master whose poetry is already forgotten by the modern world."
By 1977 the figure of Jesus is crowned with the halo of martyrdom:
"For me Christ has always symbolized the typical Jewish martyr. This is how I understood it in 1908, when I used the image for the first time... I was influenced by the pogroms. Therefore I portrayed him in representations of the ghettoes, surrounded by Jewish torments, by Jewish mothers fleeing in terror, clasping their infants in their arms."
In a poem from the year 30, the artist made Christ the universal symbol of suffering:
"And like Christ I aim crucified, fastened by nails to the easel."
Great poet, teacher, Jewish martyr, universal symbol of suffering, the Jesus of Chagall is moreover a sublime figure who returns almost obsessively in his art, as Jean Cassau has said. The Jewishness of Chagall is reflected in him as in a mirror. In a recent interview he said:
"Everyone knows that I am a Jew, both as man and as artist. All that I do, all that I have created, is dedicated to Israel and the Jewish people, Does it have to be said all over again?"
There is a surprising thing to be seen in the presentation of Jesus and the cross in contemporary Jewish art, in Chagall as well as in others who preceded him: it is the relationship which is established in the soul of Jewish artists between the reaction to and condemnation of Christian anrisemitism and the integration into their artistic stock-in-trade of the symbol of the cross and the figure of Christ.
According to Amishai-Maisels:
"Their works are a form of visual polemics addressed to... Christians as a condemnation of their actions against the nation of Jesus... Paradoxically, the holiest Christian visual symbol, the crucifixion, was used to indict Christianity, and an image which had been anathema to Jews became a symbol of their martyrdom".7
Thus the cross, which should he the sign of a Christian's identity, becomes instead the sign of his infidelity, infidelity arising from failure to follow this Lord who, through that same cross, wishes to reconcile Jews and Gentiles (cf Eph. 2:16).
* Renzo Fabris, former president of the SIDIC Association, resides in Milan. He is very active in Jewish-Christian Relations, both as a writer and lecturer.
1. See Franz Meyer: Mark Chagall, Life and Work, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, p. 137 (translated from the German).
2. Jacques Maritain: Ili mistero di Israele e altri saggi. Una lunga battaglia contra l'antisemitismo. Morcelliana, Brescia 1964, pp. 147 and 151.
3. Jean Cassau: Chagall, Thames and Hudson, London 1965, p. 243.
4. Elisa Debenedetti: I miti di Chagall, Longanesi, Milano 1962, p. 77.
5. See Robert Aron: The Jewish Jesus, Orbis Books, N.Y. 1971, pp. 5-8.
6. Jacques Maritain said in 1929: Chagall knows what he is saying, but perhaps he does not know the purport of what he is saying. St. Francis could have taught him about it, as he taught the skylark. (In E. Debenedetti, op. cit., p. 127).
7. Z. Amishai-Maisels: The Jewish Jesus in: Journal of Jewish Art, vol. 9/1982, p. 104.