Faith through Art: Chagall’s White Crucifixion is a favorite of Pope Francis

Editor's note: Visit this link for an image of the White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/59426

By Sandra Martin
Columnist

To anyone familiar with the whimsical and dreamlike work of the French-Russian artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985), his White Crucifixion might be a revelation. Those who know him as a Jewish painter might be further intrigued. Gone are the jewel-like blues, reds and greens of most of Chagall’s paintings; gone are his trademark roosters, donkeys and cows, symbols of peaceful village life, so close to his heart. In White Crucifixion, these bucolic images are replaced by darker ones: refugees fleeing by boat and on foot, desecration of synagogues and Torahs and burning villages. Chagall’s signature color is drained from the canvas, leaving stormy shades of gray; indeed, the brightest bursts of color are seen in the flames from fiery buildings. 
Amidst this turmoil is the crucified Christ. But rather than a loincloth, he wears a tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl), and on his head a kerchief rather than the traditional crown of thorns. 
Remarkable as this painting is, it is perhaps equally remarkable that Pope Francis has named it as one of his favorite paintings. In a 2013 biography, “Pope Francis: Conversations With Jorge Bergoglio: His Life in His Own Words,” the pope (Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio at the time of the interview) said, “White Crucifixion, by Marc Chagall, who was a Jewish believer, is not cruel, but hopeful … Pain is depicted there with serenity. To my mind, it’s one of the most beautiful things he painted.” This is not totally surprising given the pope’s deep commitment to interfaith dialogue. In fact, Pope Francis’s prayer intention for January 2016 was “That sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce the fruits of peace and justice.” 
Chagall’s painting would seem to be an artistic manifestation of interfaith discourse in pursuit of reconciliation and justice, not only between Jews and Christians, but among all humankind, reflecting St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” (1Cor 12:13). The painting is a powerful reminder that Christ suffers in unity with all humanity.
White Crucifixion was painted in 1938, on the threshold of WWII, after Chagall had become aware of horrific Nazi programs against the Jews. In the painting, a crucified Christ is surrounded by scenes of terror and devastation. Above the cross float three rabbis and a Jewish matriarch, in obvious distress. A man on the lower left flees with the Torah, as on the right we see the Jewish holy book in flames. A man in green flees with his knapsack on his shoulder, while below him a distraught mother cradles her infant - an image reminiscent of so many recent photographs of Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing the brutality of a more immediate conflict. 
On the left of the canvas a boat presumably filled with emigrants, while above them a village is upended and in flames, its inhabitants and their belongings scattered amidst the chaos. Though Pope Francis discussed this painting several years ago, it is sadly even more relevant today as the earth currently endures its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. 
If Pope Francis considers this painting, with its scenes of persecution and misery, as hopeful, the reason could be found in the image of Christ, which, as the pontiff says, is depicted “with serenity.” Jesus, with his tranquil visage, expresses “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding” (Phil 4:7). Another symbol of hope lies beneath the crucifix where we see not a menorah, but a candelabrum with six candles, one of them extinguished. Perhaps we are to discern from this that all is not lost, but darkness may befall us lest we grasp the light, shown here as a luminous beam from above, streaming behind the cross and bisecting the canvas. As significantly, the sphere of light and hope around the candles is reflected in the halo around Jesus’s head. 
Addressing the historical antipathy between Christians and their Jewish brethren, Cardinal Henri de Lubac, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, writes, “Such… is that tragic enmity, symbolic of so many others, between Jew and Gentile. Christ came to bring them to unity and peace. He is himself this peace in person: Pax nostra. Raised up on the Cross, his arms stretched out, he is to gather together the disunited portions of creation…” (Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, 1988). Thus does Chagall’s extraordinary White Crucifixion reflect and unite the disparate faiths and symbols of the “one spirit.”