One hundred thirty years after the birth of Moishe Shagall, as he was known in his small Hasidic neighborhood on the outskirts of Vitebsk, and thirty-two years after the death of Marc Chagall, as he came to be known in the modern art world, we are starting to understand his vision. Somewhere in between his life dates, Chagall became the world’s preeminent Jewish artist at a time when the Russian Jewish intelligentsia fanatically directed itself towards universalism. His stained-glass windows opened onto the world from the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, the United Nations, and the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. It is interesting, then, that Chagall’s radical religious vision has been subsumed under his cultural one in debates over his national identity, whether Jewish, French, or American. However his internationalism manifested itself in his practical life, Chagall’s aesthetic internationalism did not seek to disavow but to embody both God and the nation-state within the unbound, undifferentiated experience of color and light.
Chagall’s most enigmatic expression of his radical religiosity is manifested in his crucifixion paintings, a motif to which he returned throughout his life. In his bestselling novel My Name is Asher Lev (1972), writer Chaim Potok has offered the most cogent if obtuse explanation of Chagall’s Jewish crucifixions through his thinly-veiled character Asher Lev, a Hasidic artist who can’t find a usable iconography for suffering in his own tradition so he appropriates Christian iconography to depict his parents languishing on crucifixes. Potok’s narrative achieves explanatory power but denies Chagall his profound religious vision. In Potok’s hands, Chagall becomes a derivative artist who manages to escape a parochial upbringing devoid of aesthetic sensibility for a bohemian life in Paris. Potok’s narrative elided with a postwar literary preference for the shtetl as the lost site of Jewish authenticity but it denies Chagall, as so many other Jewish artists, religious feeling.
Chagall may have sought a practical exit out of Vitebsk but his aesthetic struggle centered on expressing his religious vision. He tried to articulate his expansive sense of the world throughout his career but Chagall was not a worldly man. In 1915 Chagall sought spiritual guidance from the Hasidic master Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn (1860-1920) near his family’s summer home outside of Liozna. In his memoirs, Chagall recalled his anticipation for his private audience with the rebbe, apprehensive if “any other artists had filed their names with the court registrar.” Chagall sought the rebbe under the pretense of a move to another city but it was actually the pale-faced Jesus that “burned his tongue” for which he sought outlet. He did not muster the courage to ask and, when his wife edited the manuscript for the 1931 publication of My Life, she laid a cynical mirth over the episode and deleted Chagall’s concluding remark that, “if worse came to worse, I would have left with the Rebbe to his capital of Lubavitch.” What this missed opportunity suggests is that the pale apparition that had taken residence in his head was not a secular symbol of martyrdom, as he would later explain, but a profound religious meditation.
It’s too bad Chagall held his tongue. In 1915, Chagall was still a Russian provincial while Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber was a cosmopolite who had traveled throughout Central Europe, spoken with renowned scholars of his generation, been psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud and his colleague Wilhelm Stekel, toured Europe’s museums, and penned a philosophical treatise on the sexual identity of the Divine Name. He would not have been scandalized by Chagall’s Jewish Jesus and may have even seen it as an expression of the Hasidic concept of “avodah b’gashmiut” (worship through corporeality). We’ll never know.
We do know what Pope Francis saw in Chagall’s image of Christ nearly a century later when he admitted, on April 9, 2013, that Chagall’s White Crucifixion (1938) was his favorite painting. In singling out this particular work, Pope Francis also found a symbol par excellence for a post-Holocaust, post-Vatican II world for Chagall depicted Jews as victims persecuted in the name of Christ, effectively reversing the historical representation of Jews as Christ-killers. But, while this aspect of Chagall’s work will no doubt animate our collective consciousness, Pope Francis also acknowledged the religious nature of the work. If Potok understood Chagall’s Jewish Jesus motif as a derivative escape valve from religious frustration, Pope Francis made no distinctions between Chagall’s religion and his art. In the eyes of God’s representative on earth, Chagall’s White Crucifixion can no longer sustain a cultural interpretation rendered in a derivative style but a magnificent religious image on par with the world’s greatest religious masterpieces.
And, Chagall’s crucifix scene is an avowedly Jewish image. Christ is wrapped in a loincloth made of a the ritual Jewish tallit, surrounded by Houses of Worship, Torah scrolls, and a lit seven-branched menorah that had long symbolized messianic redemption in Jewish iconography. These recognizable Jewish symbols are consumed in flames in a work that turns out to be a complete reversal of the crucifixion motif. Conventional Christian art represents the submergence of the world’s pain into the body of Christ. In Chagall’s painting, on the other hand, Christ’s body stretches out in complete repose while suffering emanates to the world around him. While the scene is surrounded by the chaos of a violent and suffering world, Chagall’s profound identification lies with Christ, into whose disinterested face Chagall poured a disproportionate attention. The painting may provoke contemplations on the love of God in the face of His indifference but the painting itself is a meditation on the affective experience of God’s indifference. As an artist, Chagall knew the profound excitement over one’s own creation. In imagining what it might feel like to experience neither pleasure nor torture from your creation, Chagall arrived at Jewish death. Chagall washes the scene with a white that contains all the colors of the spectrum, attempting to reach into the heart of the Creator, what Hasidim call devekut, modernists call the sublime, and Catholics call transcendence.
Featured image credit: “Detail of East Window, All Saints, Tudeley- designed by Marc Chagall”, photographed by Tony Grist. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.