The White Crucifixion

Marc Chagall, The White Crucifixion, 1938
oil on canvas, 154.3 x 139.7 cm
Art Institute of Chicago

The White Crucifixion is a painting that simultaneously conveys the suffering of Jesus of Nazareth and that of a Jewish community.

Central to Chagall's composition is the figure of Jesus on the cross. Notably, instead of a white piece of cloth, Chagall's Jesus presents a Jewish praying shawl.

Below the traditional "INRI" (abbreviation of Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum, expression chosen by the Romans and put on the cross in order to humiliate both the Nazarene and the Jews), Chagall added the meaning of the four Latin letters in full Hebrew characters.

In the History of Art, Chagall is among the first Jewish artists who painted Jesus, with compassion, and identifying the Nazarene as a son of the Hebrew nation.

Although crucified, Chagall's Jesus bears no crown of spines. The white turban on Jesus' head is an attribute that links the Crucified with the prophets from the Holy Land. In European art, the turban has often been used as a distinctive sign of a Hebrew prophet.

The figure of Jesus on the cross is rendered by Chagall with sensitivity. According to Chagall's image, there can be no doubt about Jesus' origin and integrity. Moreover, white light descends on the cross, illuminating the Nazarene.

Chagall painted this picture in 1938, a few years before the assassination of almost all the European Jewry.

In Chagall's Crucifixion, there are various stressed European Jews on both sides of the cross. On the left one can see the red flags of Communism, houses in flames, Jews trying to leave Europe in a boat; on the right a Nazi destroys a synagogue in Lithuania.

The figure of Jesus is also illuminated by a six-branched candelabrum.

The figures in the foreground include a Jewish man who advances carrying a Torah with him, yet simultaneously looking back, at Jesus on the cross and the synagogue in flames. Preceeding this man there is yet another one branded and bearing a placard in German that reads "Ich bin Jude", probably to remind the viewer of ordinary discrimination under the Nazi regime.[1]

Like Jesus, who has been branded by the Romans (INRI), another man has been labelled, although this time not by the Romans. Brutality is the common ground of both labellings and, historically made to humiliate the victims. Chagall's painting clearly shows the oppressor's inhumanity.

An additional, green man carrying a bundle that crosses the painting in the foreground also appears in other several works by Chagall. Perhaps is a Jewish wanderer from the Yiddish community or an emigré. Whatever the case, it also recalls the Wandering Jew coming from popular European myth and its anti-Semitic legends.

The cross, especially the one in the very scene of the Crucifixion, was often regarded as a symbol of oppression by the Jewish people, but in The White Crucifixion, Chagall reformulates this view, as he represents suffering as the common ground to both Jesus and the Jews.

While suffering is the theme of Chagall's painting, it is no secret that Chagall was a deeply spiritual man. Indeed, unlike many others,[2] Chagall was an open-minded person, being in love with both tradition and innovation.

It is sometimes said that Chagall developed the "Jewish Jesus" type. His real contribution, however, maybe was to have trascended the several traditional boundaries.

Presenting some of the darkest moments in history of humanity, Chagall's image implicitly recalls the words of St Paul: "my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ".[3]

Moreover, linking Judaism to Christianity, Chagall could also be evoking the ideas that "if the root is holy, so are the branches. If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. [...] Do not be arrogant, but be afraid".[4]

The olive tree in bloom: has a root.
What the tree has in bloom is nourished by that which is buried.
Francisco Luis Bernárdez: Lo que el árbol tiene de florido vive de aquello que tiene sepultado.

Because of its originality and human dimension, The White Crucifixion is often considered to be a remarkable work of art and one of the most significant masterpieces that are preserved in the Art Institute of Chicago.

1. Jackie Wullschläger notes that two changes were made by Chagall to the work, the swastika on the armband of the Nazi burning the synagogue was overpainted as well as the words "Ich bin Jude" on the placard around the neck of another man (Chagall, 2008).
2. Indeed, the fine appearance of Chagall's Jesus has nothing to do with, for instance, the coarse look of Neave's stereotyped Jesus:

Richard Neave (University of Manchester), The Son of God, forensic reconstruction, broadcast on BBC, 2001. Feedback: “My only quibble would be that this face doesn’t have any soul in the eyes. In portraying the face of Christ each artist is expressing their own soul image, but this face does look a bit vacant” (Mary Farley, Society of Catholic Artists); “Unless you believe all first-century male residents of Israel to have looked identical, … the exercise in reconstruction is pointless” (Catherine Bennett, The Guardian).
3. Romans, 9: 1-5
4. Ibid., 11: 17-20

Further reading
• Ziva Amishai-Maisels, The Jewish Jesus (Jesus as a Jew in Jewish Art, April 2009), Documenta, 6.4.2013.

Comments received
A. Thanks! I have no idea of this painting by Chagall and its contents. Julia Meana
B. I like Chagall very much. He's an optimist in the middle of a sad world and he never abandons you there. Excellent text. Thanks, Mónica Ottino
C. It is always interesting to read the stuff you analize. Débora Sis
D. What a good article! I keep on thinking about how strong and wise are St Paul's words on the olive tree. Pancho Ottino
E. Marvellous. Thanks for this wonderful present. Eugenia Zabini
F. This text makes a difference. Congratulations. Jorge Bozzano
G. Thanks. This text is super-interesting. After having read it carefully, I've leart a lot. Saint Paul's words are impressive. Eddy Bull
H. Excelent analysis. Martiny Yaya
I. Intense. Most interesting. I've love it. Now I feel that we need to learn more about our Jewish-Christian culture, its origins and relationships, because most people forgets that Christianity was born frem Judaism. Reading your text gives one enthusiasm to do so. The text you've published is simply adorable. Mariana Figueroa Sánchez
J. Darling, what nice lines you have written. Also a most meaningful homage to professor Ziva Amishai-Maisels. Deby from Spring Hill said
K. Thank you for the article. All the best, Ziva Amishai-Maisels
L. Ah! Takes me back! Perhaps you could come back on a lecture tour? Dr Jenny Naseem
M. Most interesting! Claudia Itkin.