Chagall and the Cross: How a Classic Jewish Artist Depicted Christ

'Chagall: Love, War and Exile' at the Jewish Museum in New York offers a glimpse at Marc Chagall's paintings from the 1930s and '40s, many of which feature crucifixion scenes.

Amy Klein
Amy Klein
Amy Klein
Amy Klein

When you think of artist Marc Chagall, often called the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century, you probably don’t think of Jesus Christ.

But it turns out the Belorussian-born French painter, whose whimsical, colorful and dreamlike work includes images of floating cows, happy lovers and violin-playing angels, also had something of a fascination with the Jew who was crucified and became the central figure of Christianity.

The artist's depiction of Jesus on the cross is among the themes featured in "Chagall: Love, War and Exile," at the Jewish Museum in New York (running through February 2, 2014). The show covers the wartime years of 1930-1948 and depicts grim themes – the destruction of the shtetl, the persecution of the Jewish people and, in particular, the crucified Christ.

Chagall had been fascinated with images of the crucifixion since his youth. He grew up in a Hasidic family in Vitebsk, a Jewish town in Belarus that he also depicted in his art, but often visited the Russian Orthodox churches. Vitebsk (1911) shows Chagall, palette and paintbrush in hand, towering over the town and staring at the cross-topped spires of the Christian churches.

“The symbolic figure of Christ was always very near to me, and I was determined to bring it out of my young heart. I wanted to show Christ as an innocent child,” Chagall wrote. At age 25, he painted a cubist Calvary (also called Dedicated to Christ, from 1912) depicting the crucifixion – but the figures standing at the base of the cross are his parents. “When I painted Christ’s parents I was thinking of my own parents…The bearded man is the child’s father. He is my father and everybody's father,” the artist was quoted in the exhibition notes as having written.

By the late 1930s, Chagall, already famous and ensconced in Paris with his family, now French citizens, returned once again to the subject of crucifixions – but the innocence is gone. In the works from this period, Chagall used Jesus to illustrate distress over the rise of Hitler, anti-Semitism and destruction – and he hoped to reach Christians by using their most powerful symbol. Take, for example, The Artist with the Yellow Christ (1948), a self-portrait of Chagall with his palette, in which he turns away from the scene he is painting: A yellow Jesus hangs on the cross wearing a black-and-white tallit loincloth, as an old hunch-backed man walks by using a cane. This is one of Chagall’s tamer depictions of the martyr; the next ones no longer express ambivalence.

Persecution, which Chagall painted shortly after his arrival in the United States in 1941, is rendered in the boisterous blues of Chagall’s more joyous paintings, but the rooster, a scholar and a mother with child stand at the foot of the cross – with the shtetl burning in the background.

Detail of Marc Chagall's 'Exodus,' in which Jesus leads the Jews from slavery.
Detail of Marc Chagall's 'Vitebsk,' the Jewish town in Belarus where the artist visited churches as well.
Detail of Marc Chagall's 'Calvary.' The figures standing at the base of the cross are his parents.
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Detail of Marc Chagall's 'Exodus,' in which Jesus leads the Jews from slavery.Credit: Artists Rights Society, New York / ADAGP, Paris.
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Detail of Marc Chagall's 'Vitebsk,' the Jewish town in Belarus where the artist visited churches as well.Credit: © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
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Detail of Marc Chagall's 'Calvary.' The figures standing at the base of the cross are his parents.Credit: © 2002 MoMA, New York

“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… It was under the influence of the pogroms,” Chagall wrote, according to art historian Ziva Amishai-Maisels in “Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts” (Pergamon Press, 1993). “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.”

Chagall abandoned his lyrical colors with Descent from the Cross (1941), in which, this time, amid the muted grays, Chagall’s face is on the crucified one, being lowered from the cross by a bird-headed figure. The INRI inscription (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) on the cross is replaced with MARC CH. An angel flies near him with a paintbrush – but Chagall’s eyes are closed. Art cannot save the Jews from destruction, he seems to imply.

By 1944, the Jews are hanging on crosses strewn throughout the abandoned burning shtetl in The Crucified, where the only man alive is sitting on a roof clutching a Torah.

Chagall was not the only Jewish artist to portray Christ during the war years. This exhibit also includes the brochure for “Modern Christs,” a 1942 exhibition of 26 artists, 17 of whom were Jewish (Chagall was not among them). But for Chagall, the Christ figure came to represent the millions murdered during the war.

Yet by 1948, just a few years after the war's end, Chagall’s depiction of Jesus is less anguished and more colorful. In Christ in the Night, we see the return of those luscious blues, with a cow head and red angel flanking the crucified. The shetl in the background is not burning: The war is over. Chagall and his new wife (his first wife died in the U.S.) are back in France but things are far from the same.

Although the artist's work turns lively again after the war, with paintings of lovers and flowers in bloom, Jesus still makes appearances. In Exodus (1952-1966), the Christian Jesus – sans loincloth, but crowned by a halo – is the one leading the Jews out of slavery.

One woman who visited the Jewish Museum exhibit commented “Too many Jesuses,” as she left the four-room show. Perhaps some visitors might feel that way. But it is important to note that the artist who, for many, represents classic Jewish painting of the last century, focused on Jesus on the cross to express his – and his people's – palpable pain.

Chagall: Love, War and Exile, is at the Jewish Museum of New York until February 2, 2014. An app is available for both iPhone and Android.

Detail of Marc Chagall's 'The Artist with the Yellow Christ,' wearing a tallit loincloth.Credit: © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

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