Mel Gibson Meets Marc Chagall: How Christians & Jews Approach the Cross

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Last August in Los Angeles, I saw an early, rough edit of Mel Gibson's controversial new film, The Passion of the Christ. Reviled as anti-Semitic by some who have not even seen it, I judged the version I saw free from explicit anti-Semitism, for three reasons. First, it placed a large onus for the crucifixion on the Romans. Second, it depicted disagreements among the Jewish authorities about Jesus' punishment, and repeatedly showed Jews who were sympathetic to Jesus. Finally, it omitted the oft-cited phrase from Matthew's Gospel ("his blood be on us and on our people"), a phrase that has notoriously been used to justify violence against Jews. And it portrayed Jesus' words from the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," as referring to even those Jewish authorities who had urged his condemnation. Still, my hunch is that some Jews will intensely dislike the film. Historically, the story of Christ's death and the symbol of the cross are so closely associated with anti-Semitism that many Jews will be understandably repulsed by Gibson's movie.

Strangely, The Passion has drawn me to a reconsideration and greater appreciation of Marc Chagall's multiple renditions of the crucifixion. Last October, San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art presented a stunning retrospective of Chagall's paintings. In the period between 1938 (the year of Kristallnacht) and the end of World War II, Chagall (1887-1985), the Russian-born surrealist, obsessed about Jesus as a sacrificed Jew and as a symbol of humanity's suffering. What might we learn from this quintessential Jewish artist about the iconic significance of the cross? For Chagall, the cross became a way to express his deep, inexpressible grief for the mass murder of his fellow Jews. His work serves as a kind of test case of one possible modern Jewish appropriation of the cross, one from which Christians might profitably learn.

Two of Chagall's most famous paintings of the crucifixion are located in U.S. museums. His 1912 Calvary is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his White Crucifixion hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. Calvary is a striking canvas on several counts. Its scale, and the multiple preparatory sketches Chagall executed for it, indicates that he saw it as a particularly important painting. He included it (originally titled Dedicated to Christ) in his first shows outside Russia--at the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1912 and in Berline in 1914. Calvary represents a double-break for Chagall--both from the cultural boundaries of his Hasidic upbringing and from the strictures of the artistic world's avant-garde. Only in the free artistic air of Paris, and far from his boyhood shtetl, could Chagall have ventured such a painting.

In Paris, Chagall came under the personal and artistic influence of the cubist Robert Delaunay, whose wife, Sonya, was a Russian Jew. Like Picasso and Braque, Delaunay was a collagist. Calvary, with its floating blocks of greens and reds and abstract forms, has a more distinctive cubist character than most of Chagall's later paintings. At the center of the painting is an unmistakable Christ on a cross (provocatively a child Christ), with the figures of Mary and John at his side. In the background, Joseph of Arimathaea is depicted bearing a ladder. This crucified Christ-child wears a Jewish prayer shawl for a loin cloth.

Chagall had studied many of the classical crucifixion paintings in the Louvre. In this early canvas, he deploys the deconstructive strategy of cubism, but without following either cubism's eschewing of cultural references or its increasingly nonrepresentational and self-contained character. The fragmentation in his cubist technique in no way obliterates the clear narrative of the cross. The picture is unmistakably suffused with a figurative and iconic religious significance.

On several occasions (first in Paris, later back in Russia during and after World War I), Chagall experimented with abstract and geometric forms. …