Marc Zakharovich Chagall (6 July 1887 – 28 March 1985) was a Russian-French artist. Art critic Robert Hughes referred to Chagall as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century” (though Chagall saw his work as “not the dream of one people but of all humanity”). An early modernist, he was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints. We focus here on his paintings of Yeshua.
Marc Chagall is perhaps best known to American Jews for his stained glass windows depicting the twelve tribes of Israel. For some, the name Chagall conjures up images of upside-down green horses or multi-hued, Picasso-like scenes of shtetl life. An overview of this master’s work must take into account the diversity of themes he had handled: his own town of Vitebsk, Russia; the sufferings of the Jewish people; and an assortment of biblical motifs. In this article, however, we will concentrate on those paintings which focus on Yeshua.
Chagall’s paintings of Jesus fall into two categories. First there are the scenes of the Crucifixion. It took much courage for Chagall to deal with this theme which, in the minds of so many Jews, is associated with persecution. In these canvases, we notice from the settings that Yeshua is being portrayed as an observant Jew. But more than that, the crucified Yeshua serves as a symbol of martyred Jews everywhere, and in particular those who were victims of the Holocaust. In these paintings, there is no hint of him being anything other than the symbol par excellence of Jewish suffering.
The White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall, 1938, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Franz Meyer, the definitive biographer of Chagall, gives us a description of the painting White Crucifixion (see below). He calls this work “the first in a long series.” Meyer writes:
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 fasting fate and is not abolished by Christ’s death.1
This same type of Jewish yet non-Messianic Jesus is seen in Yellow Crucifixion. Here Chagall shows us “the crucified Christ, who is explicitly characterized as a Jew by the phylacteries on his head and the prayer straps on his arms…2
In a second category of “Jesus paintings,” Chagall does add a Messianic import. Sidney Alexander contrasts this with the martyrdom imagery of earlier works:
In works of the past quarter of a century…the Crucifixion can hardly be said to stand explicitly for the martyrdom of the Jews… That Chagall considers Jesus one of the great Jewish prophets (as he has declared on many occasions, and as his son David testified to me) is perfectly coherent with history and a certain kind of liberal Jewish faith. But when he places a Crucifixion in the background of his Jacob’s Ladder or Creation of Man, at Nice, he is inviting the spectator to read his iconography as Christian fulfillment of Jewish foreshadowing.3
Alexander goes on to say that Chagall only intended to “provide ‘universal’ symbols.”4
Indeed, as far as anyone knows, Marc Chagall was not a believer in Yeshua as the Messiah. However, as one schooled in Western religious art, it is to be expected that Chagall is keenly aware of the Christian understanding of Tenach themes as foreshadowing the life of Jesus. Indeed, he seems to be sympathetic to the continuity between what is commonly called the Old and the New Testaments. Such continuity is dramatically present in paintings such as The Sacrifice of Isaac, where Yeshua, carrying the Cross, is placed in the background of the Akedah. Moreover, the red color covering Abraham streams down from the Crucifixion scene in the top right hand corner of the picture, richly suggestive of blood. In both Old and New Testaments blood is God’s provision for atonement for sin. Thus not only is the Akedah joined together with the Crucifixion, but the suggestion of Jesus’ death being an atonement is present as well. When one considers that the Sacrifice painting is part of a series called Biblical Messages, it becomes apparent that Chagall understood the association of the images. And, as is true in works of great art, such paintings go beyond themselves. They raise the question of the meaning of this continuity between the Testaments for Jewish people today.
This same Isaac-Christ image is employed elsewhere. So writes Ziva Amishai-Maisels concerning the tapestry Exodus, which currently hangs in the Knesset in Jerusalem:
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 easily be 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.5
But again, in such paintings Jesus must be seen as more than merely a symbol of the suffering Jew. Chagall is aware of the connection which exists between Isaac and Christ in Christian thought.(See Akedah) Such connections are apparent in the tapestry Isaiah’s Prophecy in which Chagall portrays not the crucified Christ, but rather the baby Jesus:
In [certain] works he had juxtaposed the Old Testament themes, which formed his main subjects, to related episodes from the New Testament in an attempt to blend the two Testaments together by suggesting continuity between them. This had been the reason he had added Christ carrying the Cross to representations of the Sacrifice of Isaac, which in Christian’s theology prefigures the Crucifixion. This is also the reason he portrayed the Madonna and Child [in the Isaiah tapestry] in the corner of the prophecy Christians relate to the birth of Jesus.6
But far from a Madonna and Child being rendered in any traditional Protestant or Catholic way, above the figure “is a man suggestive of a mohel. The addition of such a figure tends to stress the Jewish nature of the child born to the woman…as Jesus had been circumcised.”7
Chagall’s work has not always produced positive responses. S.L. Shneiderman, writing in Midstream magazine in 1977, was especially upset that Chagall had accepted work for stained glass windows in several cathedrals in France, utilizing some of these very motifs:
Despite some misgivings, Jews came to accept even his Christ motifs symbolic of Jewish martyrdom through the ages… However, the Jesus motifs Chagall introduced into the cathedrals show no association at all with Jewish martyrology. They are mere illustrations, as it were, of the story told in the Gospels.8
Shneiderman quotes French writer Raissa Maritain 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.” Disapprovingly, Shneiderman goes on to say that “Chagall never expressed disagreement with…Mme. Maritain’s interpretation; [it was] included two decades later in the catalogue of the largest retrospective exhibition of his work.”9
Shneiderman then gives an anecdote of a conversation which took place between the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever and Chagall, which was published in the Tel Aviv Yiddish periodical Di Goldene Keit (No. 79-80, 1973):
Later I learned in Paris that Chagall had also asked the Chief Rabbi of France for advice [re: doing a work for a church in Venice]. The Chief Rabbi…had told Chagall, very simply: “It all depends on whether or not you believe in it.”10
Unfortunately, Shneiderman is not too pleased at the prospect that Chagall just might believe it after all. And whether in fact Chagall does or not is beyond our consideration at this time. But in the kaleidoscope of his large assortment of “Yeshua paintings,” his art raises the question for us, Do we believe it? And if not, why not? The traditional answer that “Jews just don’t believe in Jesus” cannot be offered so glibly–not after contemplating the work of Chagall, thought by many to be the greatest Jewish artist of the 20th century.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the beauty and creative vision of Marc Chagall’s art, and his understanding of Jewish identity and its relation to Yeshua. His work speaks to us so powerfully of Yeshua’s life and solidarity with his people, his crucifixion as a means of reconciling Israel, the nations and all creation to Yourself. Help us to know and express this as Jewish disciples of Yeshua. In his name we pray. Amen.
- Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall: Life and Word (N.Y.: Abrams). pp. 414-415. 2. Meyer, p. 446.
- Meyer, p. 446.
- Sidney Alexander, Marc Chagall: A Biography (N Y Putnam, 1978).
- Alexander, ibid.
- Ziva Amishai-Maisels, Tapestries and Mosaics of Marc Chagall at the Knesset (N.Y.: Tudor), p. 47.
- Amishai-Maisels, p. 79.
- Amishai-Maisels, p. 81.
- L. Shneiderman, “Chagall — Torn?”. Midstream. June-July. 1977. p. 49.
- Shneiderman, p. 53. 10.
- Schneiderman, p. 62.
Marc Chagall’s extensive repertoire of artwork, in which Jesus and the crucifixion is the central subject, assuredly begs the question: “What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing painting a nice Jewish boy like him?” The artist’s preoccupation with Jesus as a symbol of Jewish suffering and deliverance provides much fuel for discussion from both Jewish and Christian art critics. But can either side definitively claim Chagall as its “own”?
It’s important to remember that Chagall grew up in Europe in a bewildering, disturbing atmosphere of anti-Jewish sentiment and change. The Hasidic background of his youth provided a rich source for painting Jewish culture and tradition onto the “canvas” of a new and challenging political scene in which being Jewish was a crime. Chagall combined mystery, allegory and history with religious thought and symbols both Jewish and Christian. It is often difficult to know where each of these genres begins and another leaves off, so cleverly does the artist entwine them. Any attempt to unravel one entanglement only leads to another.
“For me, Christ has always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr. That is how I understood him in 1908 when I used this figure for the first time,” Chagall said. “It was under the influence of the pogroms. Then I painted and drew him in pictures about ghettos, surrounded by Jewish troubles, by Jewish mothers, running terrified with little children in their arms.” [ 11 ]
There, the artist has said it himself: Jesus is a type of Jewish martyr. Not the Jewish martyr, but just one. The crucifixion as a motif depicting suffering—not solely salvific—pre-dates Chagall and even pre-dates the Christian era. The Greeks were known to incorporate crucifixion as a symbol of punishment into their artwork. So which is it—punishment or salvation?
Perhaps the simplest answer is that in Chagall’s work, it is neither, and it is both. For him, the Jews were being punished simply for being Jews; Jesus was punished simply for being Jewish. And as a salvation motif, crucifixion in Chagall’s work can be understood as both a hope and a means of relating to the greater culture of Europe at that time. It could be a universal symbol for Jewish people to hang on to; knowing that the Christian savior claimed to have risen from the dead, perhaps the Jews’ fate will be to also rise from the ashes of European anti-Semitism.
Perhaps the best answer to the “punishment or salvation” question is not a comfortable one, for it is a mixed view, and is not definitive. After all, the artist’s world is imaginative, and to criticize, malign or even attempt to define why Chagall painted Jesus on the cross would beckon us to do the same with other artists such as Picasso, who depicted women as the angular planes of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.[ 12 ] Picasso had his muse (sometimes muses); Jesus might have been Chagall’s source of inspiration that spoke to a continued Jewish presence in the world, an end to persecution, and comfort for endless suffering and persecution.
Was Jesus Chagall’s personal savior? On canvas, yes. Past that, we cannot be sure. But most likely, that is not what that artist wanted us to think about. He was too busy painting flying goats, flying harps and flying roosters for us to catch.