Daily Devotion for Monday 8th April 2024

Monday 8th April 2024  Marc Chagall White Crucifixion
2024 © Photo Scala, Florence The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource NY / Scala, Florence

White Crucifixion is the first in Marc Chagall’s series of compositions that feature Jesus as a Jewish martyr and dramatically call attention to the persecution and suffering of Jews in 1930s Germany at the hands of the Nazis.  The work is startling as the crucifixion, often seen by the Jewish people as a symbol of oppression, is instead being used to represent their suffering.  Chagall stressed Jesus’ religious identity by depicting him and the biblical figures above him in traditional Jewish garments. The surrounding images show the devastation of pogroms, violent attacks against Jewish communities often organised or sanctioned by local governments. Combining the Crucifixion with contemporary events, Chagall’s painting links the martyred Jesus with the Jewish people being persecuted across Europe and implicitly compares the Nazis with Jesus’s tormentors.

Reading  Isaiah 52: 13 – 15

See, my servant shall prosper;
    he shall be exalted and lifted up,
    and shall be very high.
Just as there were many who were astonished at him
    —so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
    and his form beyond that of mortals—
so he shall startle many nations;
    kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
    and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.


Christians are surprised when they realise Jewish people don’t read Jesus into Isaiah’s Suffering Servant poems.  Jewish commentators have seen the Suffering Servant as Isaiah himself, Jeremiah, the Messiah who is yet to come, or as a representation of the Jewish people.  

We are similarly surprised when we look at Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion.  Chagall was raised as an Orthodox Jew, knew his Bible, and chose to portray Jesus as one persecuted Jew amongst many.  Jesus’ modesty is preserved with a tallilth – a Jewish prayer shawl;  a menorah is placed at his feet, a head cloth, not a crown of thorns, on his head. Biblical figures weep instead of angels and, instead of disciples watching on helplessly,  Chagall surrounds the Cross with images of pogrom and persecution.  Painting this in the aftermath of the German State’s wrecking of Jewish businesses in 1938, Chagall was all too well aware of the power of hatred – the hatred that sent Jesus to the Cross and millions of Jews to the gas chambers.  

Here the Cross is seen as what it was – an instrument of torture and oppression designed to instil fear and compliance into subjugated people.  A punishment too cruel and agonising to use on Roman citizens, a method designed to prolong the agony of death, and to ensure the conquered didn’t rise up.  What we are accustomed to see as a symbol of victory (or to ignore in favour of an empty Cross) is, in fact, a symbol of imperial violence.  

I was once asked what is beautiful about the Cross and struggled to answer seeing it only as a symbol of hatred, degradation, torture, and oppression.  Yet I’m drawn to crucifixes and images of crucifixion as they remind me of what the powers that seek to rule this world will do to those who oppose them.  Beauty and victory are found in the empty tomb; the Cross reminds us of battles still to be won even if the final victory is assured.


Lord by your Cross
and Resurrection 
You have set us free.
Help us to free others.


Today’s writer

The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the URC’s Minister for Digital Worship and member of the Peedie Kirk in Orkney.


New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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