Marc Chagall was born to a Hasidic Jewish family in a town in Belarus, part of the Russian Empire. Determined to become an artist, he moved to Paris, where his distinctive style drew on various modernist influences. His work was marked by recurring dreamlike images of his homeland—rural villages filled with floating cows, fiddlers, roosters, and weddings. After travels in Palestine, biblical images also entered his work.
In 1938, following the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany, Chagall painted his “White Crucifixion,” depicting Jesus on the cross, clothed with a Jewish prayer shawl as a loincloth, and surrounded by scenes of Jewish persecution. This painting, which is apparently a favorite of Pope Francis, not only emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus but relates the crucifixion to the contemporary passion of the Jews and the ongoing suffering of humanity. Christ, for Chagall, symbolized “the true type of the Jewish martyr.” And as the Holocaust unfolded, the number of martyrs swelled beyond imagination. Chagall and his wife managed to escape to New York in 1941. His wife died two years later.
After the war he returned to France, where he became one of the most celebrated and beloved artists of his time. The visual symbols of his lost village in Belarus—of suffering, love, work, and hope—became the common treasury of humanity. He died on March 28, 1985.
“For me Christ is a great poet, the master whose poetry is already forgotten by the modern world.” —Marc Chagall