Marc Chagall

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.

A Parisian Circus: Romance Meets Modernity

Paris Through the Window, Chagall

Paris Through the Window, 1913. Oil on canvas, 53 9/16 × 55 7/8 in. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Marc Chagall’s Paris Through the Window depicts the duplicity of romance and modernity in Paris during the early 1900s.

This painting of 1913 Paris is described by Jennifer Blessing, a senior curator at the Guggenheim museum, as an ode to Orphic Cubism. It has several layers of images, colors, and objects of interest, lending to the complicated nature of the painting and the possible meanings behind it. In the foreground sits a chair with flowers, a windowpane and windowsill, a cat on the windowsill, and a two-faced man. The next layer holds (among other items) a man and woman floating towards each other, a parachuting man, the Eiffel Tower, and the cityscape. In the final layer lies a color-blocked sky, a technique that in fact exists in every aspect of the painting and increases its complexity and chaos.

The forms that immediately capture the eye include the two-faced man, the cat, the window, the Eiffel Tower, and the color-block scheme. Perhaps it is these items that Chagall wanted the viewer to notice first, as they all fit into an expected depiction of Paris yet surely hold a weight with the overall message of the piece. As soon you look past these items, however, the odd intricacies of the painting come to life—the parachuting man, the floating couple, the flowers, the trolley, and the cityscape. Although they are not as central to the picture as the bigger, more noticeable items, they nevertheless contribute to the overall sense of romance and modernity.

To initially understand this painting, one must recognize the point of view from which it was painted. The window suggests a subjective point of view, that Chagall himself is the source. From that one can deduce that the rest of the items serve as representations of his life and his view of Paris at this time. Blessing suggests that the two-faced man could be a manifestation of Chagall himself looking back at his native Russia as well as forward to his new home in Paris. With the blue face turned west, one could believe that he is looking at Paris with apprehension—possibly because of what he is seeing outside his window. This man could also represent the tension between and conjoining of romance and modernity in 1913 Paris.

The painting further suggests this duplicity with other items. The cat, for instance, has a human-like face, which could recall romantic loneliness and wonder as well as human encroachment on nature. The parachuting man can be contrasted with the couple floating over a cloud-like haze, as the first depicts the modern invention of flight while the other conveys a soft sense of romance often connected with Paris. The Eiffel Tower is a sincere tribute to modernity, and can be contrasted with the simple yet beautiful setting inside the window (which includes the flowers in the chair that occupy the same upright position as the Tower). Finally, the cityscape can be set against the color blocking of the entire piece, as both are geometrically defined. However, the first depicts a modern uprising while the latter suggests an easy, fun, romantic view of Paris.

Chagall uses color blocking and objects to draw the viewer’s attention to the duality of romance and modernity in 1900s Paris.

Chagall, Marc. Paris Through the Window. 1913. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Guggenheim. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
Blessing, Jennifer. “Marc Chagall.” Guggenheim. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.

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A Parisian Circus: Romance Meets Modernity by Claire Fyvolent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.