Friday, March 25, 2005

White Crucifixion

Another piece of art that one might expect to be too 'modern' for me to like (but I do!) is Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion.
Chagall was a Jewish artist (though he executed commissions for Catholic churches including some beautiful stained glass windows in Mainz to which no reproduction does justice) and painted this juxtaposition of a crucifixion and Jewish progrom in 1938.
I don't think Chagall (as a Jew) is proposing the figure of Christ as a redeemer. As the images of the persecution of his people whirl about him, the crucified one is passive. Pilate's inscription is written in Hebrew is written above His head, he wears a halo and is bathed in light from above... but yet he is not the suffering or redeeming Christ so familiar to us from Christian depictions. Indeed, the Christ in his utter passivity is closer to the 'pieta Christ' than the 'Crucified Christ' we are more familiar with.
About him we see a Jewish ghetto being ransacked, a synagogue being destroyed, refugees on a boat, and fleeing figures seeking to rescue their meagre belongs and the scroll of the Torah.
Chagall himself explained that Christ (modesty preserved by the prayer shawl) represented the truest type of Jewish martyr. He is the Jewish sufferer par excellence. In the context of what was happening (often, supposedly, in the name of Christianity) Chagall's painting is a bold appropriation of the cross - a symbol which must have seemed hateful to many of his fellow Jews. However, it is significant that Chagall changed his mind in the execution of the work - the fleeing figure in the left foreground was going to have the words 'I am a Jew' written on his placard. Significantly, Chagall ultimately decided to leave it blank.
Viewing this painting as a Christian one is forced to look at the cross from another point of view. We might resist Chagall's appropriation of Christ as being 'just' the exemplar of Jewish martyrdom, but even within the Christian theological tradition this aspect of Christ cannot be neglected. Christ is the ultimate fulfilment, not negation, of the Old Covenant. Similarly, the persecution of the Jews is a particularly sharp reminded that the evil perpetrated on Golgotha has never ceased to be at work in the world. Pogroms and the holocaust serve to remind us that the evil at work in the modern world (and in our lives!) is the same evil that led to the death of the most devout and upright of all the Jews. Our sins and the sins that nailed Christ to the cross are one and the same.
Chagall's appropriation of the cross should also make us think about how we 'use' the cross. In debates about whether a crucifix should and shouldn't be displayed in such-and-such a context the bloody reality of the cross is neglected. Instead of being an image that leads us to repentance and sorrow it becomes a totem, a mere symbol of sectarian identity. A Jewish depiction of the cross should remind us that there is a sense in which even Christians should allow themselves to be scandalised by the horror of Good Friday.
Finally, the passivity of Chagall's Jesus reminds me about the nature of Christian hope. The Christ is dead and even his resurrection does not eliminate what happened in the past. It does not make the evil of Golgotha any the less. The powerless Christ reminds us that there are times when it looks as though there is no way out, where things cannot get better. Christ was there too. Chagall's Christ can be seen as the epitome of von Balthasar's 'Cadaver Obedience'. In obedience to the Father, Christ is brought to a state of utter powerlessness. For the believer, it is a reminder that no matter how bad things get, in assuming full humanity and living life unto the obedience of death the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity is always with us even in the depths of suffering and reminds us that Christian hope is this - the past cannot be changed, not everything will be put right in this world, but if we have faith and trust in 'things unseen', all will make sense in the end.

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