Sermon - 13th July 2014
White Crucifixion - a reflection on the painting by Marc Chagall
Scripture - Colossians 1:15-29
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon in mp3 format is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Chagall was born and grew up in Tsarist Russia. As a Jew he was only allowed to be educated to primary level but his mother bribed the local school official to let him attend secondary school. He studied art during the Revolution and is most famous for his portrayals of Jewish life in pre-revolutionary Russia. By the 1930s he had moved to France – indeed he was in France when the Germans invaded and had to rely on the generosity of the American counsel in Marseille to get him, and his wife, out to safety.
White Crucifixion was painted in 1938 and has a specific context. Chagall painted it to draw attention to a recent series of political events perpetrated by the ruling Nazis in Germany. Both as a Jew and as an abstract artist Chagall was a target of Hitler's art censorship policies. His dealer in Germany was forced to close his Berlin gallery, cease publication of its influential newsletter, and flee to the Soviet Union in 1932. In 1937, the Nazis undertook a systematic inventory of modern art in German museums, removing some 16,000 works unacceptable to their taste to use in propaganda campaigns, to destroy, or to sell outside the country. Four works by Chagall were among those included in the 'Jewish' room of the infamous 'Degenerate Art' exhibition staged in Munich at the end of 1937, which mocked deviations from Nazi Party art standards.
Meanwhile, anti-Jewish policies in Germany escalated to an unthinkable level. Following the September 1935 laws to curtail the civil rights of Jews, the Nazis, in 1938, undertook a Jewish census and registered all Jewish businesses as preliminaries to plans for ethnic genocide. In June and August of that year the synagogues in Munich and Nuremberg were destroyed, and on November 9, the so-called Crystal Night took place where Jewish shops and businesses were attacked. The name “Crystal Night” comes from the amount of glass that was shattered from all those shop windows.
In reaction, Chagall conceived a painting of the martyrdom of the Jesus, the Jew, as a universal symbol for religious persecution. Instead of a crown of thorns, the Jesus on Chagall's picture wears a head-cloth and a prayer shawl around his loins. The round halo around his head is repeated by the round glow around the Menorah at his feet. Mourning his persecution, figures of the Hebrew patriarchs and the matriarch Rachel appear in the smoke-filled night sky – but some of these can’t bear to look.
All around the cross, Chagall has depicted a bleak snowscape with horrific scenes of contemporary Germany. In the background to the right, a soldier opens the doors of a flaming Torah ark removed from a pillaged synagogue, the contents of which litter the foreground. Both the flag above the synagogue and the soldier's armband originally were decorated with swastikas. One of the fleeing figures in the foreground at the left wears a sign which originally bore the inscription "Ich bin Jude" ('I am a Jew') but Chagall painted over these before fleeing France. In the background above is a ship full of refugees trying ineffectively to flee a burning village, destroyed before the arrival of a liberating People's Army from the Soviet Union carrying red flags; this last detail was wishful thinking, motivated by the antagonism of Stalin's government toward Hitler's before 1939.
Included in an exhibition of Chagall's works in Paris in early 1940, the "White Crucifixion" was designed to raise awareness of the events in Hitler's Germany and their implications for humanity in general.
So this is a painting about suffering, and, in particular, the suffering of the Jewish people. Perhaps a contemporary artist might paint an Iranian Jesus surrounded by scenes of the repression of Iranian gay people, those who advocate democracy and women who work for equal rights there. Or perhaps there might be a Zimbabwean Jesus surrounded by symbols of the ruthless oppression of Mugabe.
Chagall as a Jew understands the universal nature of Jesus’ suffering and sees the persecution of God’s people as being an attack on God’s own self. For me it’s an illustration of Jesus’ words recorded in St Matthew where he says that however we treat the “least” of his sisters and brothers is a reflection on how we are actually treating him.
Our reading continues this theme of suffering, and the suffering of Jesus. Paul sees his vocation as a Christian, and as a Christian leader, as entering into and sharing the sufferings of Jesus. To be a Christian is to participate in those sufferings. Paul seems to understand that those sufferings didn’t end on the cross but that the sufferings of Christ continue in his people.
The history of the Church has always included persecution and includes it now in lands where to be Christian is illegal. Chagall in his painting shows that the suffering of Jesus is also seen in the Jewish people, or perhaps he shows that the suffering of the Jewish people is also seen in Jesus.
I’m always suspicious of the type of Christianity that implies that everything will be ok once we’re Christian, that implies there will be no more pain, and that sees God as a kind of cosmic insurance policy. The witness of Scripture is that God is with us in our sufferings, that the way we treat others reflects how we treat Jesus and that God has an especial concern for the poor, the dispossessed and the persecuted.
Chagall, used his art to bring to the attention of the art world the despotic persecution of the Jews in Germany – 1938 was before the death camps but was an era of legal restriction, social alienation and state-sponsored persecution. In general the Western democracies didn’t intervene, didn’t allow many Jews to emigrate and worried about the effect of mass immigration if they did open their borders.
Suffering still continues, Christ still suffers in his people. Part of our role and ministry as Christians is to draw attention to injustice and suffering – just as we do when we campaign against the deportation of lesbian, gay and bisexual people to oppressive regimes. But we are also called to fight injustice, to protest against the misuse of power and to try and help heal the wounds of those who have been damaged.
We stand alongside those in need, those who are suffering – mentally, physically, those who suffer because of the actions of others as well as those who suffer because of their own actions. We stand alongside them and recognise the suffering of Jesus in the suffering of His people.
Chagall hoped, in his picture, that the Red Army would end the suffering of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Sadly he was wrong. We may hope in earthly powers and governments to make a difference – indeed we should lobby and vote for politicians who will make such a difference. But we also, as Christians, know that the final deliverance from suffering will not be seen this side of the grave. Jesus suffers on the cross with his people, and with Jesus we await the final day of resurrection.