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Marc Chagall’s “White Crucifixion”: An Easter Meditation

After viewing several rooms of Cubist and Futurist paintings and sculptures in the Art Institute of Chicago’s new modern wing depicting the glories of modern technology, I was already feeling a little dehumanized. Humanity and nature cannot be reduced to simple shapes, I mused, without a cost to the meaning and dignity of human life. But then I saw Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, completed in 1938.

Marc Chagall’s large canvas suddenly confronts the viewer by its size and subject. Christian observers of crucifixion scenes by European painters are used to being persuaded into feeling sorry for Jesus and his mother crying at the foot of the cross. But how many of them picture Jesus as a Jew?

If we want to know how the Jewish followers of Jesus saw him dying on the cross, we need no longer guess. Chagall surrounds the pale, modestly protected man with a dozen scenes and figures connected to rising anti-semitism in the 1930’s.  German Nazism and Russian Communism hoped to reduce Jewish influence by destroying homes and synagogues and by disemploying artists, teachers and diplomats. It was just a few years before the death camps and gas ovens, when government and technology (supplied by IBM) located and exterminated millions of Jews and thousands of homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

What makes this painting unique? No one in the history of western painting had ever placed the sufferings of Jesus and of the Jews together in this way. In our pageant plays, preaching and poetry, we are made to feel the sufferings of Christ, but what if the point of the crucifixion was his willingness to identify with ours?

Graeme Sharrock is a member of the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago and owner of Parliament Media, an inter-faith resource.


Marc Chagall, White Crucifixon, 1938. Oil on canvas. 60 3/4  X 55 in. Located top floor of the Modern Wing, Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Image © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

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