Thursday, 06 February 2014 22:36

Jesus for Jews

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white-crucifixion-1938There is a rising sea change in Jewish attitudes towards Jesus, and one of the most influential of all is Marc Chagall. For no one in the history of western painting, not Jew nor Christian, had ever placed the sufferings of Jesus and of the Jews together in quite the same way.

Born in 1887, Chagall grew up in a devout Hassidic family in Vitebsk, Belarus. He went to Heder (Jewish elementary school) together with his eight siblings and the family experienced all the pain and hardships of the anti-Semitic pogroms common in those days. As events of the Shoah began to unfold in the 1930s and 1940s, Chagall, one of the most successful artists of the 20th century, felt compelled to explain to Christians that by persecuting the Jews they were actually attacking the brothers and sisters of their own Christ. His message, however, went unheeded.

By the end of the decade, Chagall's warnings had become a terrifying reality. In early 1938, as the horrors of the Nazi program unfolded, Chagall began work on his iconic White Crucifixion, an image intended to shake the world out of its indifference.

In the White Crucifixion Chagall portrays Jesus as an observant Jew suffering together with his own people. We see the Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the matriarch Sarah looking down in awe and mourning over the crucified Christ. A Tallith (Jewish prayer shawl) is wrapped about his loins in an attempt to preserve what little dignity he has left. A final appeal for pity towards the suffering Jewish Jesus and his people.

Chagall surrounds his Jesus with scenes of the oppression forced upon the Jews. In the upper right corner of the canvas a Nazi Brownshirt plunders the Torah scrolls from a burning synagogue, a direct reference to the destruction of the Munich and Nuremberg synagogues on 9 June and 10 August 1938. The lions placed over the synagogue doors refer back to the tribe of Judah and make a direct connection between the crucified Messiah and his family now also persecuted.

In the lower left corner of the painting an old man trudges along with a placard on his chest reading "Ich bin Jude" -- I am a Jew—a victim of the Nazi design to humiliate Jews. Above him, refugees unsuccessfully attempt to escape by boat while a nearby shtetl is set ablaze and ransacked.

And yet, as Chagall wants to stir the sleeping conscious of an apathetic Christianity, he is also intent on instilling an element of hope, perhaps even of resurrection. Indeed, this may very well be the most far-reaching aspect of Chagall's depiction of the Crucifixion. For in the midst of the horrors, misery and mourning Chagall draws our attention to the crucified one who hangs in the glow of a Menorah shining from below. Add to this the divine ray of light shining on the suffering Messiah from above and it is clear that Chagall wants his own Jewish people to contemplate how perhaps they too might find some measure of comfort in the Suffering Servant.

Chagall received numerous commissions for works in churches around the world where he depicted Jesus with a prayer shawl for a loincloth, and occasionally with a phylactery on his head. In these works Chagall is not only pointing Christians to the Jewish Jesus so that they might resist anti-Semitism, he is also promoting a dialogue between Jews and Christians.

In his painting the Sacrifice of Isaac which is part of his interfaith "Biblical Message" series of Old Testament scenes done in the 1950s-1960s, Chagall places Jesus in the background carrying the cross surrounded by mourning and wandering Jews. The sacrifice of Isaac is understood by Christians to be a prefigure of the crucifixion, and Chagall uses these images to stress the common faith and deep connection between Jews and Christians.

In similar fashion, in his Exodus series done for the Knesset building in Jerusalem, Chagall shows a small Sacrifice of Isaac on the left, behind Moses, with Isaac lying on the altar in a crucified position. Thus Chagall tried to get the message of unity to the Christians in their churches and to the Jews in his work decorating the main reception hall of Israel's Knesset building.

Chagall died in France in 1985 at the age of 97 years old.
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