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Celebrated Jewish artist paints Jesus

The most famed Jewish artist in history created more than 100 startling crucifixion scenes, but didn’t anyone think to ask him, “Why?”

Marc Chagall’s joyously chaotic paintings remained stubbornly populated with only a handful of subjects his entire life, which nudged close to a century. From his birth in 1887 to 1985 the Belarusian-born painter lived through the Russian Revolution, spent decades in Paris and New York, survived the Holocaust and produced three families among other adventures. No lack of subject matter there.

Yet there’s no simple way to explain away the centrality and constant of the crucified Christ in his work, although many have given it a shot. Chagall’s themes were drawn from childhood in the drab Jewish village of Vitebsk where he lived the first 19 years of his life. Wherever he sojourned later, the shtetl and his fantastic symbolic cast of characters followed after him like a child recreating his home with toys and cast-off trinkets.

Into his tableaus of happy families, lovers and religious holidays, Chagall wove dark threads of pogroms, anti-Semitism and the Marxist Revolution. It’s here that Christ shows up as the grand protagonist, often square in the middle as in his “Crucifixion sur Fond Rouge.” Here angels plummet, onlookers wail and men and horses circle Jesus as he is removed from the cross. A rabbi appears to entreat him while brides and cattle float through heaven, all common themes in his private, spiritual language.

Decades later Nazis and concentration camps invaded his dreamlike canvases and happy homes. The most renown of these is his great “White Crucifixion” (1938), painted the year Hitler declared absolute war against the Jewish people.

“The White Crucifixion” by Marc Chagall

Pope Francis I claims this is his favorite painting. Jesus is the anchored, unmoving center of a hellish storm of suffering. One corner sponsors bloody Marxists bearing down on a burning village while a boatload of half-dead refugees attempts to flee. Under the Weimar flag a fiery Synagogue is inhabited by men and Torah scroll and could well represent Dachau’s ovens.

Color schemes were highly symbolic in Chagall’s work and sometimes easily read. White in this crucifixion is the color of mourning for Jews. The cross is a tau (tav), also a sign of sorrow but a road or shaft of light behind it leads straight up and out. A mangled menorah is directly at Jesus’ feet, and its light echoed in the halo (representing holiness) Chagall painted about Christ’s head.

Evil and woe alone inhabit the “White Crucifixion”: the wandering Jew, humiliated old men and a weightless crowd of heavenly witnesses covering their eyes in horror. His happy fiddlers and dancing cows are all missing. Was Jesus passive through all this, or was it an indictment against Christian Europeans who did nothing to stop the Holocaust?

Most secular writers have well rehearsed stories for the hosts of “Christs” hovering about Marc Chagall’s paintings. One even has some support from a quote by Chagall himself, according to Jeremy Cohen: “For me, Christ always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr.”

This makes sense in many paintings. Jesus is the most iconic symbol of suffering ever known to man and the one his Western audience would indentify with. All this is true.

Additionally Chagall was one of the few artists to that time who consistently portrayed Jesus as being a 100-percent, genetically unmodified Jew. He was moved and inspired by the masters who painted Christ authentically and had traveled to see Rembrandt’s “Heads of Christ.”

His art was subordinate to his Jewishness as evidenced by saying, “If I weren’t a Jew … then I wouldn’t be an artist, or at least not the one I am now.”

“Exodus” by Marc Chagall

Chagall’s Jesus almost always wears the tallith, a traditional Jewish prayer shawl for men. If that isn’t enough of a clue for viewers, a phylactery, worn only by only the most orthodox of Jewish men is on his head instead of thorns. Phylacteries contain a scrap of the Word of God and symbolize the great value of Scripture.

“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul;… and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 11:18).

Susan Goodman, curator of New York’s Jewish Museum, believes Chagall was challenging the dominant Christian culture, “asserting the Jewishness of Christ” and trying to reconnect ancient and historic ties between Christians and Jews. Specifically, Goodman and others feel that Chagall was repainting Jesus as he appeared in prophetic history to sway Christians to see our common Jewish history, rather than appeal to Jews to consider Christ.

I personally think there’s more to Chagall’s admitted obsession with Christ.

Chagall’s crucifixions may also be his attempt to bring peace or healing via art after a long history of mistrust and troubles. Some assume his entire purpose of an ultra-Jewish Jesus was a veiled rebuke to the Christian world for centuries of persecution and a reminder that Jesus claimed to come first to save Israel. Christ in the midst of his Holocaust-themed paintings may even stand for the Jewish people who are being “crucified” by Nazis and others. Considering his career spanned the Holocaust, that’s a sensible answer and may be part of his motivation.

For instance, sinking boats are a consistent image in Chagall’s paintings. Undoubtedly they represent Roosevelt and Britain’s refusal to grant entry and safe passage to starving Jewish refugees. But what about the decades before and after all those troubles? Crucifixions stretch from 1912 up to his more recent pieces. Christ shows up in Chagall’s work even in the best of times, while he enjoyed peace and plenty and the Holocaust was far past.

As proof, Chagall speaks of “Christ, whose pale face had been troubling me for a long time” even from his early autobiography “My Life.”

Many writers and art historians claim that Chagall was a secular artist, and to a point that seems true. He was not a particularly observant Jew, but claiming his interests in the Bible were motivated to protect his heritage alone doesn’t match his words, much less his work.

Quoted in Jackie Wullschlager’s biography, Chagall claims to have been “captivated by the Bible” since early childhood: “It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time.”

Chagall was even more energized over his heritage after his first trip to Jerusalem in 1931 where he was “deeply moved by the Wailing Wall and the other holy places.” He was so enthused that he abruptly changed themes, leaving the modernists and the 20th century even further behind with no concern over the effects on his career. Sounds like an epiphany to me.

“And in the East [Israel] I found unexpectedly the Bible and a part of my very being,” Harshav quotes him.

Other biblical characters appear with Jesus in Chagall’s work, even when there is no clear reason for him to be there. In his “Exodus,” Jesus is quite superfluous to the story to those who don’t subscribe to his Godhead and eternal existence. Why then is a crucified but radiant Christ elevated over a crowd of joyous Jewish people? True, symbols of trouble still lurk in the background, but they are small, dark and subdued; a burning village and some troubles in the sea. But an “Exodus” of the jubilant nation is somehow tied to Jesus, or Chagall wouldn’t have placed him as the triumphant focal point of this painting.

“Christ and the Artist” (various) by Marc Chagall

Adding to the mystery are pieces like his “Christ with Clock,” which seem unconnected to the Jewish experience at all. Chagall made several versions of Jesus beside a huge grandfather clock. Is time illuminating and focused on Jesus and the cross? Christians believe that is the case.

Along with paintings about Abraham and Elijah, Chagall presents straight crucifixion scenes minus the village and its woes. But for the style, these could as well be any traditional Christian painting. In one “Crucifixion,” Jesus hovers on the cross covered by tallit in what appears to be Jerusalem. A woman charges by, shielding her eyes from witnessing the crucifixion.

Even more personal are “Christ and the Artist,” where only a few enigmatic religious images remain with Jesus, who emerges from the canvas while the artist watches. “The Soul of the City” places Christ and Chagall in a painting within a painting. Here the painter seems to be discussing the crucifixion while facing his fellow villagers and the image of Jesus at the same time (accomplished through using two faces). An angel and omnipresent flying Torah scroll rise on the left.

Did Marc Chagall struggle with the possibility that Christ is the Jewish Messiah?

It’s said “all art is autobiographical,” and if artists are understood through their work, it’s a valid question. The modernists of his time are painstakingly deconstructed and analyzed years later by art historians and theorists looking for the subtlest of clues. They find implied spiritual content in Pollock and in Mondrian’s rectangles, but blazing centrality and honor Chagall gave Jesus Christ is explained away somehow.

Marc Chagall left this world almost 30 years ago without leaving a clear written confession of Christ as Messiah, but I believe his paintings are still making claims of their own. They are worth investigating, as well as sublimely beautiful works of art.

“Chagall: Love, War, and Exile,” The Jewish Museum, New York, N.Y., through Feb. 2, 2014, explores a significant period in the artist’s career from the rise of fascism in the 1930s through 1948.