Marc Chagall: The Yellow Crucifixion




In 1942, a small passenger boat called the Struma was torpedoed by submarine off the coast of Turkey. On board were almost eight hundred European Jews, including one hundred children, fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust.

An aging boat in poor repair, the engines of the Struma failed almost immediately on leaving port in Romania. Wedding rings and all remaining possessions were sold to pay for repairs, and the ship limped into Istanbul. As the result of pressure from the British, who wanted to curb further Jewish immigration into Palestine, the Turkish government refused to allow refugees to disembark.

After weeks of failed negotiations, which resulted in the release of only a handful of passengers, food supplies on board ran out, and the crowded Struma was towed back out into Black Sea, where she drifted aimlessly. The torpedo, fired by a Russian submarine, hit the next morning. There was only one survivor.

The following year, not long after escaping Vichy France for America, the Lithuanian Jewish artist Marc Chagall painted The Yellow Crucifixion. The sinking Struma, with figures of drowning refugees, can be seen clearly on the left. On the right, flames rise from a burning ghetto. At the foot of the painting, a mother and child flee in terror.

The fiery yellow of the background conjures up the yellow star of David, and the crematoria of the concentration camps. In the centre, an angel holds a Torah scroll, whilst blowing a trumpet: the ram’s horn sounded on the day of atonement.

But it is the figure on the cross that dominates this painting. This is no Aryan Christ. This is  not the blond, blue-eyed Jesus of Nazi propaganda, nor of our childhood bibles. Chagall’s is a thoroughly Jewish Jesus: a prayer shawl round his waist, prayer straps on his arms, and a phylactery on his forehead for carrying tiny parchments of scripture.

The Yellow Crucifixion was not an expression of Christian faith by Chagall. Instead, Chagall deliberately used the ubiquitous iconography of the cross to represent centuries of persecution of the Jews, often at the hands of Christians and their followers. 20th century anti-Semitism did not arise in a vacuum: it had deep roots in Christian history and theology.

It was a portrayal which shocked both Christians and Jews alike: a powerful statement of the Jewishness of Jesus, and a presentation of Jesus as the icon of Jewish suffering and persecution.

For Christians, The Yellow Crucifixion helps us understand again the meaning of the incarnation. Here is a picture of God, in the person of Jesus, present in the suffering and persecution of his people, entering into solidarity with them, himself betrayed, beaten, and crucified. A God who is not distant from his people, but with them, and one of them.

In the novel Night, based on his experience as a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the Jewish writer Elie Wiesel tells the story of a child who is hung in a concentration camp as other prisoners are forced to watch. As the boy slowly asphyxiates, a man cries out: ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ And from within him, the narrator says, he heard a voice rise up unbidden to answer: ‘Where is God? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.’

Where is God? Where is God in the midst of suffering? Where is God in the face of evil, in the gulags and the pogroms, the killing fields and the concentration camps? He is there, Wiesel says, in the midst of it, in the suffering, in the pain, on the gallows.

In the crucifixion of the world, God, too, dies.




Posted in Art

4 thoughts on “Marc Chagall: The Yellow Crucifixion

  1. Simon Brooke says:

    Such a powerful painting. I hadn’t heard the story behind it before now. Why does an all powerful loving God allow his children to suffer so appallingly is one of the biggest questions in Christianity – and one of the reasons why so many people feel such scepticism about it. Elie Wiesel’s story and this painting go some way towards offering an answer to this difficult question.

  2. david broad says:

    This painting , and your comments, prompted me to re-examine Chagall – clearly he was not just the whimsical, fey ‘ Fiddler on the Roof ‘ fantasist I’d assumed , Both his own response to European anti-semitism and the ideas in Elie Wessel’s novel ring home to me in France this week as Simone Veil’s death is marked by her interment in the Pantheon. They escaped, just, but so many of their milieu didnt – Walter Benjamin committed suicide on the French /Spanish border.

    I remember reading CS Lewis’ ‘Problem of Pain’ as an adolescent and feeling none the wiser and , like Simon Brooke, I find the theological arguments for a totally ‘good’ God hard to reconcile with the human condition. So my own reading and approach to why such atrocities happen has been primarily historical/political scientific – this summer I’ve emarbarked on studying Hannah Arendt’s writings : her exprience of anti-semitism in Germany and then Vichy France mirrored Chagall’s . She is best known for her ‘ banality of evil ‘ insight covering the Eichmann Trial but I’m hoping her key work ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism ‘ will deepen my understanding of how ‘civilised ‘ Europe crumbled so readily between 1933 and 1945 . It is not an easy read but
    la France profonde = no TV ., no telephone – are a help . I’m also hoping to read books by Nabokov and Hans Morgenthau , both – like Arendt and Kissinger – fleeing to to the USA from ant-semitism,

    • admin says:

      Thank you David. I’ve always found Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’ extremely helpful. I think one of the problems with the way in which evil and ‘the devil’ are handled in the Christian tradition is that there is a tendency to trivialise evil: it becomes associated with sexual sin, witches and oujia boards, rather than the real evils in the world – decisions by state bureaucracies or corporations (in which we are all complicit, and which receive slick justifications in the media) which have devastating consequences on whole populations. Haven’t come across Hans Morgenthau – will need to look up!

  3. david broad says:

    Yes – a strong point : thank you ‘ state bureuacracies etc = evil versus the witchcraft = evil ( as punishments from an angered God requiring sacrifice)

    Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus (or one of them rather) looks at just this issue = of being complicit- the Nuremburg doctrine extended to understanding how and why man/we go along with cruel mean arrangements as much passively as actively .

    I’m not sure I have quite understood her argument /explanation . I’ll try to summarise it another time – she’s certainly very anti=bourgeois ie a society based on individuals making money for its own sake means our only link to one another is purely utilitarian and this leads to loneliness and then totalitarianism can waltz in — I think !

    Again , on a personal level, echoing Bonhoeffer, I don’t see how any Englishman can help asking – what would I have done if Britain had been invaded ? How complicit would I and my famiy have been ? It haunts me.

    Andrew Roberts is revealing in Eminent Churchillians showing how close to being Fascists/Totalitarians were Edward V111 and one of my ( early !) adolescent favourite historians – Arthur Bryant ( ‘no Thucydides ‘, said Trevor Roper , when asked to comment on Bryant;s historical ability !). Do go and see / read ‘Alone in Berlin’ if you can – modest film but harrowing.

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