Denis Desert on the image of Christ in the paintings of Marc Chagall

pope Francis was quoted recently as saying that his favourite painting was Marc Chagall’s White Crucion, No doubt he identified in the artists work the general suffering of humanity, particularly the persecuted and the deprived.

Marc Chagall was born in 1887 into a poor family living in the Jewish quarter of Vitebsk in Russia. This was a time when Jews lived strictly controlled lives and were compelled to live in designated areas known as the Pales of Settlement. They also had to obtain permits to travel to other towns. This caused the young art student considerable problems when he studied in St Petersburgh. Chagall found the artistic approach of his mentors stultifying but was enabled, due to a generous Jewish patron, to leave for the fresh air of Paris in 1910. Here he came into contact with the avant garde of art and culture and his artistic perception deepened and expanded.

Dream-like quality

But the young Chagall did not reject his roots in his native Vitebsk. Throughout his life the Pale of his early years continued to be reflected in his works. His Jewish formation was deeply coloured by the Hassidism of the Vitebsk community. This aspect of Judaism emphasizes the mystical element of faith. One of the tenets of Hassidism is that the true meaning of scripture is to be found in the white spaces between the characters. So we see in Chagall’s work a dream-like quality with its dissonant elements giving expression to the often contradictory experience of our human predicament.

Some, understandably, might find it odd that a Jewish artist turned frequently to the image of Christ in many of his paintings. The White Crucifixon painted in 1938 is a case in point. The work is dominated by the crucified Christ with his loins draped in a Jewish prayer shawl. The figure of Christ is illuminated with a beam of light emanating from the divine Shekinah reflecting the feminine aspect of God. At the foot of the cross is placed a menorah representing the presence of God in the tabernacle of the wilderness years; it is a sign of assurance. To the left of the painting is a Jewish man fleeing with the Torah scroll clasped to his chest symbolizing the value that Judaism places on the covenant relationship with God. All around the artist paints scenes of devastation and terror.

To the right we see flames from a burning synagogue and possibly reflecting Kristallnacht that took place in November of 1938.

Suffering and hope

While many commentators have offered their views on Chagall’s general use of Christ as an icon, his own words are far more relevant. He wrote, ‘For me, the Christ has always symbolized the true type of Jewish martyr. It was under the influence of the pogroms that I painted and drew him in pictures about ghettos, surrounded by Jewish troubles, by Jewish mothers running terrified with little children in their arms: But the artist saw his works on a broader scale when he

wrote, ‘These paintings, in my thoughts, represent not the dreams of one people, but of all humanity’ Clearly Chagall’s vision embraced the suffering and the hopes of the whole human race.

It is significant that in 1978 Monsignor Mayer, the parish priest of St Stephan’s church in Mainz, invited Chagall, then aged ninety-one, to design the stained glass windows for the church. He regarded the Jewish artist not only as `a master of colour and the biblical message but one who in the post-war years acted as a bridge between the nations. Mainz at one time had been classed as the capital of 0European Jewry.

Eternal truths

It so happens that a German friend sent me a card depicting a section from Chagall’s splendid window in St Stephan’s. Her father had been head of the Mainz post office in 1938 when Goebbels ordered him to dismiss all Jews on his staff. As a devout Catholic he refused and as a result was demoted to the position of a junior counter clerk in his own post office. His stance, I am sure, would have been approved by Chagall and also by his holiness Pope Francis.

In my view Chagall’s paintings generally are well worth studying and especially those featuring the image of Christ. The artist, with his Hassidic background, leads the viewer to understand that the eternal truths cannot be contained in narrow formulae but, inspired by God, are best expressed through the depths of the creative imagination. White Crucifixon is not only the Popes favourite painting but has had a place on my study wall for many years.