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Art and Images in Psychiatry
October 2014

White Crucifixion and Listening to the Cockerel: Marc Chagall

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland
JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(10):1096-1097. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.2759

I carry my cross every day, I am led by the hand and driven on, Night darkens around me. Have you abandoned me, my God? Why?

Marc Chagall, Mayne Trern (My Tears)1(p220)

In White Crucifixion, Chagall documents the deliberate targeting of Jews in Nazi Germany that was the prelude to the Holocaust (Figure 1). Chagall uses religious imagery when he depicts Christ on the Cross as the central figure, not as the Christian savior but as a Jewish martyr.2 Thus, Chagall brings the Crucifixion to bear on contemporary Jewish tragedy. He starkly depicts Christ’s martyrdom as a Jew whose sacrifice speaks to the unspeakable suffering of Jews brought about by Nazi ideology. Chagall was reacting to events that took place in 1938, a year that marked the renewed persecution of Jews in Germany. It began with the registration and marking of Jewish businesses and was followed by the forced use of the names Abraham and Sarah for men and women and the required stamping of passports with a “J.” Concurrently that June and again in August, synagogues were destroyed in Munich and Nuremberg. The destruction reached its climax on the night of November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht (Crystal Night, or Night of Broken Glass), when more than 7000 Jewish-owned stores and buildings had their windows broken, when more than 1000 synagogues were desecrated, and when more than 30 000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and at least 90 were killed. Historically, Kristallnacht marked the beginning of the Holocaust.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), French. White Crucifixion, 1938. Oil on canvas, 154.6 × 140 cm (60⅞ × 551/16 in). Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Gift of Alfred S. Alschuler. © 2014 Artists Rights Society, New York, NY/ADAGP, Paris, France.

In White Crucifixion, Chagall documents the desecration of 1938 and calls the world to witness. In this painting, light shines down from above to illuminate both Christ on the Cross and a menorah (a symbol of the Jewish faith) at the foot of the Cross. Both the head of Jesus and the menorah (an ornamental menorah with 6 candles, 1 of which is extinguished) are surrounded by a halo of light. To signify his Jewishness, instead of a typical loincloth, Jesus wears a fringed Jewish prayer shawl with 2 black stripes across it. Rather than a crown of thorns, he wears a white head cloth. The Roman’s traditional derogatory Latin inscription INRI (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”) appears above his head. Beneath it is the Aramaic (a language spoken by Jews) translation Yeshu HaNotzri Malcha D'Yehudai in Hebrew characters.

According to Ziva Amishai-Maisels,2 Chagall’s Aramaic spelling was a play on words because HaNotzri is more usually used to mean “the Christian,” rather than either “the Nazarene” or “the man from Nazareth.”2(p139) In the Book of Acts, Nazorean is used to refer to a follower of Jesus (ie, a Christian rather than an inhabitant of a city), and in modern Hebrew, Notzrim is the word for Christian. Thus, Chagall’s Aramaic designation indicates his recognition of Jesus’ importance to both Christians and Jews. Hovering above the Cross are 4 alarmed figures in mourning (3 biblical patriarchs and 1 matriarch) who express anguish at the tumult beneath them.

Jesus’ left hand reaches out toward a pillaged and burning synagogue. Flames leap out to destroy the Torah ark. Remnants of the pillaging are shown—a torn prayer book, an overturned chair, a lamp, a menorah, and, sadly, a burning Torah scroll.

In the lower right side, a “Wandering Jew” (emblematic of the fate of the Jewish nation) is carrying a sack on his back, seeking to escape. Three bearded Jewish men are shown in the lower left side. One wipes away his tears. Another wears an unreadable sign (originally with the words Ich bin Jude [I am a Jew]). A third man holds a rescued Torah scroll tightly in his arms.

To the far left, houses are burning. An unburied body lies among tombstones in a cemetery. Dispirited villagers sit in the snow; an unused fiddle lies on the ground beside them. Others seek to escape in an immobile, overcrowded boat with a single oar. Above them, peasants carrying red flags and weapons approach the village. Their red flags may identify them as Russian Communists who, at the time, led the resistance against German domination of Europe. They may be coming to offer help.2 If so, such hope in this would soon be abandoned when Germany and Russia signed a nonaggression pact.

Chagall was not alone in his emphasis on Christ’s Jewishness. Chagall’s use of a Christian symbol in White Crucifixion was intended to bring to the attention of a broad international Christian audience the inhumane treatment of the European Jews and to counteract the indifference to their plight.

White Crucifixion was the first of a series of wartime and postwar crucifixion paintings by Chagall that eventually numbered more than 25 major works of art.3 In them, Jesus’ Crucifixion serves during wartime as a potent political statement about the persecution of the Jews and also as a visual metaphor for Chagall’s emotional state throughout the war years and afterwards. In his poetry, he described his identification with the martyred Christ and his despair (epigraph). Chagall’s Crucifixion paintings reflect his responses to the war and his increasing identification with his suffering Jewish Jesus during those years. For example, when Nazi Germany invaded France, Chagall and his family escaped to the United States with American help. On his arrival in New York City, he painted The Descent From the Cross (1941). In this painting, there is a burning Jewish village in the background, and Chagall has substituted his own name for the designation INRI above Christ’s head on the Cross. Although apparently dead, Chagall/Christ is approached by an angel with bright blue wings who brings him his palette and brushes. She seeks to revive Chagall and to call him to resume his vocation in a new land.

When Hitler’s defeat was assured, Chagall indeed was revived, and his joyous art returned. Listening to the Cockerel (1944)4 (Figure 2) represents the return of Chagall’s optimism. In this painting, the Chagall cock returns to his work as a symbol of physical love and virility. In Listening to the Cockerel, Chagall announces the restoration of hope with the crowing of a ruddy rooster (cockerel). Moreover, this special male bird with its signature yellowish comb is preparing to lay an egg! There is a fiddler (another character common in Chagall’s work) nicely hidden in the cockerel’s tail feathers. Further echoing the union of male and female, a cow, with udders intact, turns its head to reveal the faces of happy lovers.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), French. Listening to the Cockerel, 1944. Oil on canvas, 99 × 71.5 cm. Private collection, New York, NY, Peter Willi. Bridgeman Images. © 2014 Artists Rights Society, New York, NY/ADAGP, Paris, France.

White Crucifixion received renewed public attention in 2010 when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (before he became Pope Francis) revealed in an interview5 that he believed White Crucifixion to be one of Chagall’s most beautiful paintings and identified it as his favorite painting. The Pope’s meaningful recognition of White Crucifixion suggests a deep identification with the suffering of the Jewish people.5

Chagall continued to paint joyfully and lived to the age of 97 years. He was active to the last, decorating synagogues, churches, and other public settings. His best-known late works are his stained glass windows. Chagall, a secular Jew renowned for Jewish themes in his art, was buried in the Christian cemetery in the French Village of St Paul de Vence on the French Rivera, where he lived with his second wife Valentine, a Christian convert.6 After her death, she was buried next to him in an adjoining grave. There were no religious rites, but the French Minister of Culture spoke about Chagall’s contributions. At the conclusion of Chagall’s burial, a participant in the ceremony rose to read the Jewish kaddish (prayer for the dead). Chagall’s art has a universal appeal and continues to be celebrated by people worldwide, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Section Editor: James C. Harris, MD.
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Article Information

Corresponding Author: James C. Harris, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 1800 Orleans St, Baltimore, MD 21287 (jharri10@jhmi.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

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