Judaism and the Crucifixion in Art

White Crucifixion - Marc Chagall
One of my favorite books is My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok (who wrote some remarkable books.) Asher Lev is the story of an Orthodox Jewish boy who has incredible artistic talent. He begins to paint nudes and the Crucifixion, which you might imagine doesn't go over well in his community. But Asher believes he is being true to himself and his faith.

At First Things, Tom Wilson explores the art of Marc Chagall, the Jewish painter of the 20th century and his crucifixion paintings.

More important, it seems, is the way Chagall uses the crucifixion as a symbol for not just human, but specifically Jewish, suffering.

For Chagall places the crucifixion amidst contemporary scenes of anti-Jewish persecution. Jesus is unmistakably Jewish: a Jewish prayer shawl in place of the more typical loincloth, the addition of phylacteries to the arm of the figure upon the cross. In one, Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio, it is even a tailed and swastika-wearing Nazi, rather than a Roman soldier, that we see carrying out the crucifixion. Chagall even included the crucifixion in paintings of the tin-pot ships that carried holocaust survivors to the holy land, sometimes sinking while attempting to avoid the British blockade.

How are we to understand these paintings as Jewish? From paintings such as Exodus, begun in 1952, in which a huge crucifixion image of a distinctly Christian Jesus, haloed and illuminated, towers over the fleeing and sorrowful Jewish masses and their burning shtetl, it’s tempting to reference the theology of St. Augustine. After all, the appearance of the crucifixion alongside so many instances of Jewish suffering might well conjure thoughts of exiled Israel as blighted witness.

Yet, it seems that for Chagall, images of the crucified and noticeably Jewish Jesus were a very immediate way of evoking the inhumanity of anti-Semitism. In his particularly mournful 1944 picture The Crucified a number of Jewish men are shown on crosses throughout a devastated shtetl, the men with placards around their necks, evocative of his 1938 painting White Crucifixion in which one figure wears a placard reading ICH BIN JUDE—I am a Jew.

Both Chagall's work and Potok's writings are worthy of contemplation, remembering that for Catholics, the Jews are our elder brothers and sisters in faith, and the Covenant we have in Christ is rooted in the Covenant God has with the Jewish people.

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