Holy Week: Meditating on Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion

White Crucifixion–1938 oil painting by Marc Chagall (click on picture to enlarge)   (more details at end of post) 


 As you probably know, this week is the celebration of Jewish Passover and Christian Holy Week. Because of this, I wanted to do something special, so I hunted online for a work of art to use for visio divina (meditating with art, see Feb. 24, 2011 post). As a Christian, I was looking for an image of Christ on the cross, and ended up being drawn to a 20th century painting called White Crucifixion by the famous Russian and Jewish artist Marc Chagall.

People have highly individualized reactions to art and I want to state up front that this post is not a historic analysis, an art critic’s review, or even a theological examination of the White Crucifixion. This post is simply my own personal feelings, thoughts, and prayer reactions after spending several days pondering the work. I respect that there are many ways to view the White Crucifixion, and I believe the artist himself would be the first to acknowledge that.

Many of Chagall’s paintings could be described as lively, romantic, humorous, imaginative, and filled with brilliant colors, but the White Crucifixion is largely drained of color. Chagall painted it in 1938 while living in Paris, in response to the horrifying events of Kristallnacht,  the “Night of Broken Glass,” when Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues throughout Germany were systematically vandalized or destroyed, and thousands of Jewish men were carted off to concentration camps.

In White Crucifixion, Chagall arranges various scenes of this Jewish suffering around the crucifix, much like an altar screen adorned with biblical scenes around the perimeter. In the upper left, Russian soldiers turn Jewish homes upside down and set them ablaze. In the upper right, Nazi soldiers throw sacred objects from a burning synagogue out into the streets.

Below, a Jewish man is fleeing with a bag of belongings on his back, while another stands ready to sprint away, the sacred Torah firmly clasped in his arms. A woman holds her child in a protective stance; an old bearded man stands with a sign around his neck, his hands open, as if to ask “Why?”; refugees on an overloaded boat look as if about to die of hunger; a sacred scroll in the lower left corner is rolling on the ground, about to disappear from our sight; and the ghosts of Jewish rabbis and ancestors float above the scene, some covering their eyes or looking away—the sight is too horrendous to behold.

In the middle of all this, a Jewish man hangs on a cross, his only clothes a simple head covering and a tallith, a Jewish prayer shawl, to hide his nakedness. The words above him identify him as “King of the Jews.” With his hands and feet nailed to the cross he cannot move to stop the chaos and suffering all around him. He, too, suffers with all those others suffering. He bows his head in silence, as if in prayer or mourning. A light shines from above, while silent candles (a menorah turned sideways?) hold vigil at the base of the cross.

If the picture makes you feel uncomfortable, as it did me, I suggest you stay with that feeling for awhile. I did. I pondered the many evil things people have done, supposedly in the name of Christianity or other religions. I thought of all the times we think of Jesus as a blue-eyed, blond-haired little baby in a manger and how wrong it is that so often Christians have stripped Jesus of his Jewish heritage—and, much worse, committed heinous crimes against his younger, modern-day nieces and nephews.

The White Crucifixion reminds me that the observance of Good Friday ought not only to be about remembering the sacrifice of Christ, but also of the suffering that is going on all around the world today. Even as you read this, someone somewhere is being tortured, unjustly imprisoned, raped, kidnapped, enslaved, or murdered. Do we pray for these unseen, silent victims?

This Good Friday, let those of us who dare to call ourselves Christians take a good hard look at how we treat people who are seemingly “different.” Let us meditate long on the words Jesus said: “. . . love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. . .” (Luke 6:27) May we respect life in all its forms, treating every human with the same dignity we would treat Christ.  After all, it was Jesus who said [in the words of the song based on Matt. 25:40], “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”



Notes:  Image of the painting above was copied from Wikipedia under the creative commons agreement. To view a larger image, visit the Art Institute of Chicago website, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/59426.

Other resources consulted: Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World by Benjamin Harshav (Rizzoli); Chagall by Jacob Baal-Teshuva (Taschen); and Marc Chagall by Jonathon Wilson (Nextbook-Schoken).

Praying with “Migrant Mother” using Visio Divina

On the website Patheos, Presbyterian minister Tim Mooney writes about a prayer form called Visio Divina, a way of praying with sacred art or other images. Visio divina (“divine seeing”) models itself after lectio divina (“divine reading”), that time-honored Christian way of thoughtfully meditating on Scripture. (Read more about visio divina here.)

 Artwork and religious symbols often draw me into a quiet, reflective zone, so I decided to give visio divina a try and share my experience here at the Spiritual Drawing Board. Just so I wouldn’t have too many preconceived ideas, I looked for an image not usually found in churches, and decided upon Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph called “Migrant Mother.”

 Experiencing Visio Divina

As the article on visio divina recommended, I set aside 20-30 minutes for the process. After asking the Holy Spirit to guide my prayer, I spent a little time just observing the various parts of the picture:

  • The woman’s sleeve is tattered. She has no make-up and there are wrinkles near her eyes.
  • Why do the children hide their faces? Are they ashamed to be seen?
  • The baby on her lap is wrapped in an oversize garment and has dirt on his or her face.

 The woman looks to be 40-something, but I know from my reading that her name is Florence Owens Thompson, 32, married mother of seven children. In this photo, taken during the Great Depression, she is sitting in a three-sided lean-to canvas tent. (View other pictures taken that day here. )

These facts make me think about the economy of today and people who suffer around the world, especially the homeless, many of whom are children. I imagine the faces of other migrant women of various races and ethnicities. Would I feel the same empathy for each of them as I feel for the woman in the picture?

 After praying for the grace to love all people with equal intensity, I focus my attention back on the picture once again. The woman’s expression haunts me. She may be worried, but she is determined. I think she is going to do whatever it takes to feed her children. With her hand placed under her chin, she reminds me of Rodin’s bronze sculpture The Thinker. Yes, I decide, she is indeed a strong woman, a brave woman, dead set on caring for her hungry children.

 I wonder, did Mary, the mother of Jesus, ever look so strong and determined? She, too, was a “migrant mother,” on the move with Joseph, first traveling as a pregnant woman to Bethlehem, then fleeing to Egypt to save her child from death, and some years later to Nazareth. Did the Holy Family ever experience hunger pangs? Surely Mary must have felt this same fierce love and deep resolve to do whatever was necessary to care for her Child.  

 Why have I never seen this look of strength and determination on the face of Mary in statues or paintings? Wouldn’t Mary have been radically committed to do all in her power to fulfill God’s will? Wouldn’t her love of God have been strong? Are these characteristics of Mary portrayed in sacred art but I just didn’t notice?

 Come to think of it, wouldn’t God have the same type of parental concern for us? Could we imagine the Divine Face looking something like this woman, in terms of her strength and determination? Doesn’t God love us as much—no even more—than the very best of mothers?

Observing the Results

Sometimes we think of Scripture as comforting, but the Word of God also challenges us to become more like Christ. I think the prayer form visio divina has the same potential. After the above prayer time, I observed myself feeling less whiney about my own inconveniences and more grateful. I found myself intentionally smiling at people who look “different” from me. And, when writing this post, I recalled that the Hosea 13:8 compares God to a mother bear, who expresses fierceness if her cubs are threatened or taken away. 

Spiritual Aerobics –Try visio divina yourself, using whatever image or artwork you like. Many musuems have artwork available online. For visio divina directions, click here.