At the end of last February, I received an invitation that brought me a lot of joy. It was a meeting at the Museum of fine arts of Montreal to view a major exhibition of works of art by a contemporary painter that I admire: Marc Chagall. I’m have been interested in this painter for many years.
Speaking of The white Crucifixion of Chagall, a Franciscan friar affirmed that this painting had a tenuous link with the Franciscan spirituality for the simple fact that the shape of the cross in this picture resembled the Franciscan Tau. Personally, I was pleased to learn that this picture was one of pope Francis’s preferred paintings.
A simple glance at this painting can provoke the immediate question: why did Chagall paint the crucifixion in white? The answer that I’ve found the most convincing is that he wanted to depict a snow-covered landscape of desolation. But there is also a wide band of white light coming from the sky, descending on the crucifix and unifying the whole picture. And further more, it is this same color that surrounds with a halo the figure of the crucified and the still lit menorah.
Eloi Leclerc, a Franciscan friar, in his book Chagall, un vitrail pour la Paix (Chagall, a stained glass window for peace), described the conditions in which the painter found himself when he made this painting of The white Crucifixion: “In Paris, Chagall (of Jewish origin) finds the freedom necessary for any real artistic creation. But then the sky becomes overcast and darkness descends on Europe. It is the rise of Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy and Spain. In Germany, the Jews are hunted down and beaten up. On the night of November 3, 1938, everywhere in Germany, synagogues are set on fire and blaze like the torches of a gigantic expiatory sacrifice; and the houses themselves of the Jews are vandalised. It is the famous Crystal night.
Confronted with these events, Chagall is aghast. The white Crucifixion, he painted that year, is a cry of suffering thrown to the world. In this painting, we see unfolding around the crucified Christ scenes of violence and dismay: troops of revolutionaries, waving red flags, pillage and ransack a village; houses burn; people in a boat, fleeing in distress, call for help; a man wearing a nazi uniform desecrate the synagogue. In desperation, silhouettes try to escape. A Jew crosses the canvas in silence, walking on a roll of the Torah in flames. In the background, in a sinister twilight, the Jewish people pours itself out in lament.»
Looking at this painting, I cannot keep myself from thinking of Edith Stein, also known as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who in 1938 wrote: “Beneath the Cross I understood the destiny of God’s People…. Indeed, today I know far better what it means to be the Lord’s bride under the sign of the Cross. But since it is a mystery, it can never be understood by reason alone”.