The Jewish Jesus: Religious Commentary in Modernist Art

Marc Chagall, Calvary, 1912, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art

Marc Chagall, Calvary, 1912, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art

Early followers of Jesus attempted to gain traction in Jewish and Gentile communities by portraying Jesus as wholly distinct from his rabbinical contemporaries. Marc Chagall’s Calvary offers a counter-narrative that grounds Jesus in his historical context and paints the crucifixion as a scene of Jewish persecution.

Immediately upon confronting this image, two things stand out: the rich colors and the geometric forms. The dominant color is the deep turquoise of the sky; the most vibrant color is the rusty orange-brown of the land. Both land and sky are comprised of swirling circles and triangles. The painting is made up of four distinct elements: the land, the sky, the water, and the cross. There are three people on the land: a man and woman at the foot of the cross, and another man entering the scene from the right. All are draped in richly/multi-colored fabric. The man at the foot of the cross wears reddish-pink colors; he is the largest figure in the scene. The woman wears green with yellow flowers. These figures are also made up of geometric shapes. The man on the right wears green, and is carrying a ladder.

Beyond the land is water, and a man in a boat. The water is separated into three colors: black, blue, and yellow. This pattern is repeated on both sides of the cross: on the left side of the cross, the water (from left to right) is black, blue, and then yellow. On the right side of the cross, the water is black, blue, and then yellow. The cross intersects both land and sky; it is rooted in the ground, but reaches to the sky. The cross, however, is not the dominant form in the image. The man is a comparatively small figure; he is blue (similar to the sky) and minimally clothed; the cross itself is off center and nearly transparent.

The figure on the cross is Jesus. His color may represent death, or (because he nearly blends with the sky) a lack of distinction. The cross’s near transparency may be Chagall’s way of downplaying the significance of this Christian symbol. The foreground and background are dominant in size and color – they are the most important things in the painting; Jesus belonged to a certain place and time. The man carrying the ladder could be coming to take Jesus down from the cross, emphasizing Jesus’ bodily existence. The two figures at the foot of the cross are grieving parents – Jewish parents, mourning the death of a Jewish man. The fact that the color pattern in the water does not converge on the cross may signify that this event did not stop or change time; life goes on, no different than before.

Chagall downplays the significance of an event that has been used (and is still used) to convey a Christian narrative that takes Jesus out of his historical context and makes him distinct from other Jewish martyrs. He paints a scene of Jewish persecution, reminding people – and Christians especially – that Jesus was a Jewish man.

“The Provenance Research Project.” Museum of Modern Art, 2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2013. <;.

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The Jewish Jesus: Religious Commentary in Modernist Art by Paige Ransbury is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.