Mel Gibson Meets Marc Chagall: How Christians & Jews Approach the Cross
Coleman, John A., Commonweal
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 …
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Publication information: Article title: Mel Gibson Meets Marc Chagall: How Christians & Jews Approach the Cross. Contributors: Coleman, John A. - Author. Magazine title: Commonweal. Volume: 131. Issue: 4 Publication date: February 27, 2004. Page number: 12+. © 1999 Commonweal Foundation. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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