Theology and Art: Chagall’s Crucifixion in Yellow

Yellow Crucifixion, 1942 (oil on canvas) by Marc Chagall. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Chagall’s Yellow Crucifixion reworks the themes of his White Crucifixion by attempting to communicate the immense suffering the Jewish people endured in Europe. He does this by utilizing the icon of the crucified Christ, again having Jesus being distinctly portrayed as a Jew. Chagall is linking the suffering of European Jews with the iconic image of the crucified Christ in order to provide a lucid portrayal of the suffering that the Jews—Jesus’ people—were experiencing. The yellow accent of this painting, found in the blazing inferno of the background, probably signifies both the flames of the crematoria and the yellow Star of David which Jews were forces to wear by the Nazis. While the green of the angel and Torah scroll signify hope.

To emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, Chagall juxtaposes a large green Torah scroll to the crucifixion of Jesus and has him wearing a Jewish prayer shawl and wearing tefillin or phylacteries (little black boxes containing verses from the Torah), with the accompanying prayer bands on his left arm. Jesus and the Torah scroll are illuminated by a candle being held by an angel flying through the air and blowing a ram’s horn, a symbol of salvation that was blown on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and certain other holy days. As with many of Chagall’s crucifixion paintings there is a ladder representing Jacob’s ladder (see Gen 28.10-19). Here it could perhaps be said to be providing the crucified Jesus a means of ascending to the Torah in the heavens.

The crucified Jesus is surrounded by scenes of pogroms. There is a burning shtetl on the right with distressed figures above it. Below this is found a Jew wearing traditional Jewish clothing (and a placard) and a fleeing woman with her child, reminiscent of the story of Jesus’ flight to Egypt as a child (see Matt 2.13-15). Similarly to White Crucifixion which had a ship carrying Jewish refugee, there is also a ship carrying Jews in Yellow Crucifixion (on the left side). There is an important difference in that this ship is depicted as sinking into the waters. This undoubtedly refers to the sinking of the Struma in 1942. The Struma was attempting to deliver nearly eight hundred Jewish refugees to Palestine, however the ship was detained in Turkey due to the British not allowing the Jews to disembark at Palestine. This led to the ship being destroyed by the Soviets a couple of months later in the Black Sea, with the occupants either dying in the torpedo blast or drowning thereafter (there was one survivor).

Interesting tidbit: Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann mentions this painting as being his muse while writing The Crucified God, a book which has been called a Christian theology after Auschwitz. He says:

In front of me hangs Marc Chagall’s picture ‘Crucifixion in Yellow’. It shows the figure of the crucified Christ in an apocalyptic situation: people sinking into the sea, people homeless and in flight, and yellow fire blazing in the background. And with the crucified Christ there appears the angel with the trumpet and the open roll of the book of life [Rev 14.6]. This picture has accompanied me for a long time. It symbolizes the cross on the horizon of the world, and can be thought of as a symbolic expression of the studies which follow. (The Crucified God, xxii; see also Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place, 191)

Chagall’s Crucifixion in White

Crucifixion in White (1938, Chagall)

White Crucifixion, 1938 (oil on canvas) by Marc Chagall. The Art Institute of Chicago.

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).