White Crucifixion, painted by Jewish artist Marc Chagall in 1938, was completed at about the time of the infamous Kristallnacht, “night of crystal” (i.e., the night of broken glass). This two-day spree of persecution against Jews in Germany and Austria, ended with at least a hundred Jews being killed, thousands wounded, and hundreds of Jewish businesses and synagogues destroyed.
In this painting Chagall stresses the Jewish identity of Jesus. Note the explicit Jewish imagery in the painting, including the menorah, the synagogue, and Torah scroll. Dominating the painting, however, is the crucified Jesus who wears a head-cloth and loincloth made from a Jewish prayer shawl (a tallit). He is illuminated by a beam of light from the heavens above and that of the menorah below. In the light of the crucified Jesus’ halo there is found the title “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in Hebrew, as well as its abbreviated form in Latin, “INRI”.
The crucified Jesus is surrounded by scenes of pogroms. On the upper left side of the painting there is a village having been plundered by the armed forces (carrying red flags), with some of the refugees forced to flee on a ship (the image of a ship is repeated several years later in Chagall’s Yellow Crucifixion). On the right-hand side of the painting there is a synagogue and its Torah ark set ablaze, with a mother and child in despair below. At the bottom of the painting, on both sides, are figures fleeing these persecutions, clutching at their Torah scrolls and religious books in order to protect them from desecration and destruction. The figure on the left (in blue) wears a sign saying “Ich bin Jude” (I am a Jew), and the one on the right (in green) is supposedly a recurring figure in Chagall’s paintings, representing a wandering Yiddish Jew. The three male and one female figures (wearing traditional Jewish clothing) situated above the cross are said to perhaps depict the mourning of the three key Jewish patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and the matriarch, Sarah.
Jackie Wullschlager, author of Chagall: A Biography (Knopf 2008), calls this painting “a work of Jewish martyrology that transforms into an emblem of contemporary tragedy” (380). She also says that “this Jesus is already dead, a motionless figure of suffering, head bowed, eyes closed—a silenced Jewish prophet” (381). And that is all the crucified Jesus is in this painting; Chagall was not a messianic Christian who was attempting to portray Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah. “White Crucifixion is a portrayal of Jesus as a suffering man and Jew, rather than as Christianity’s divine figure of redemption and salvation” (ibid). Chagall was utilizing the archetypal image of the Christian faith to provide a universally recognizable symbol of suffering and injustice, particularly as a symbol for the suffering of the European Jews in the Holocaust.
Interesting tidbit: Pope Francis has stated that this is his favorite painting (“Pope Francis: Twenty Things You Didn’t Know About Him,” London Telegraph, online edition, 14.03.2013).