23 September 2011

The Painter & the Painted

AS I LEARN MY WAY around Chicagoland, one spot has become a semi-regular stop—the Art Institute of Chicago.

The last time I was there, one painting in particular jumped out at me—Chagall's White Crucifixion (1938). There's a couple of elements in this painting that have kept me thinking about it:

The first is the juxtaposition of the central figure—Jesus on the cross—with the surrounding images of Jewish oppression (from all over: Nazi Germany, Lithuania, and communists in Russia). Jesus the suffering Jew is thus shown to be in solidarity with the suffering Jews of history.

Thumbing his nose at the typical taken-for-granted notion (not by Jews, of course) that the cross of Christ represents Jewish oppression (a misconstrual of St. Matthew's "Crucify him!"), Chagall depicts Jesus' crucifixion as a symbol (if not one in a long line) of suffering and oppression against the Jews. This further reminds me of a passage from Moltmann's The Crucified God (one that, if I remember correctly, my old professor, John Frame, railed against once in class). The main quote itself actually comes from Auschwitz-survivor Elie Wiesel's Night:
The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. “Where is God? Where is he?” someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again: “Where is God now?" And I heard a voice in myself answer: "Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there from the gallows . . .."
"Any other answer would be blasphemy," Moltmann writes. "There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment" (pp.273–74). Love it or leave it.

The second aspect of this painting I wish to highlight (one that Chagall may not have had in mind but one to which Moltmann points), I believe, is the corollary to the first aspect—the cosmic or universal nature of the Messiah's atonement. That is to say, given the Christ's solidarity with all who suffer, God's Christ is the one through whom all can be rescued from the day of judgment. He is not the property of any one people group, not least those who would argue, like the elitist gnostics of yesteryear, that he was crucified and resurrected for them alone.

Incidentally, it also represents with the brush what theologians would increasingly articulate and emphasize with their pens: the Jewish roots of the Christian story (note that Jesus is wearing a tallit).

Finally, what I think Chagall succeeds in painting here is, in short, the gospel. Only suffering overcomes suffering. "Through his own abandonment by God, the crucified Christ brings God to those who are abandoned by God. Through his death he brings eternal life to those who are dying" (God Crucified, p. 47).


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