It recently became widely known that the favorite painting of Pope Francis is the White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall. The news stirred up considerable speculation and controversy. Chagall, born Moishe Segal in the Polish-Lithuanian village of Vitebsk (now in Belarus), was probably the most prominent Jewish painter of the twentieth century. His White Crucifixion was not new to religious controversy. It received severely disparaging reviews from Jewish critics when it was first shown in France, and more since. The work (now hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago) represents Jesus the Jew crucified between, on the left, communist soldiers storming a village and, on the right, Nazis desecrating a synagogue. The Crucified, his loins draped in a tallit, or prayer shawl, is hoisted in the middle, a victim of hatreds from left and right alike.
For Chagall, not alone among Ashkenazi artists, Jesus on the cross represented the painful predicament of all Jews, harried, branded, and violently victimized in an apparently God-forsaken world. The INRI over his head is translated by Chagall into Hebrew, “Yeshua Hanotzri Melech Hayehudim.” In the foreground, fleeing, is a peasant wearing a German placard reading “Ich bin Jude.” Below, front and center, a sense of the whole scene as a horrific modern altarpiece is created by a candelabrumnot a menorah but a six-candled candelabrum in which one of the candles has been quenched. Explicit use of classic Jewish images, the vivid presence of modern-day horrors: Many have found the White Crucifixion a disturbing work, and not just pious Jews. For it to be singled out for admiration by a reigning pontiff is remarkable.
Bloggers have commented on the pope’s singular admiration of this painting. Some Catholics fear that he has betrayed a kind of “ecumenical syncretism”; others hope for a shift toward religious pluralism. Some Jewish commentators think the pope does not understand the uniquely Jewishand, for them, even anti-Christiancharacter of the painting. Others welcome what seems to be his appreciation of a commonality in the face of evil too long neglected. We can have no doubt that the juxtapositions of Jewish and Christian symbols are unsettling. The burden of history remains heavy. The hope for deliverance from its antagonisms and agonies is strong.