The death of painter Marc Chagall in March left unresolved an intriguing puzzle. While Chagall never lost appreciation for his Hassidic roots, another religious motif surfaced in his work very early. And therein lies the puzzle.

Chagall’s paintings seethe with religious symbolism from his past. The Star of David, torahs of all sizes and shapes, Tables of the Law, menorahs, and angels crowd his canvases.

In addition to scattering these elements through his paintings, Chagall painted a number of canvases specifically dealing with biblical subjects and depicted the sweep of the biblical story in The Biblical Message—a massive work now housed in its own museum.

Chagall also turned to the modern Jewish community for subjects, recording rabbis, old men in their prayer shawls, readers in the synagogue, and Jewish weddings and funerals.

Madonna And Cross

But another set of religious motifs began to appear early. Chagall incorporated Christian symbols into his work. In the same year (1912), he painted pictures of an old Jew, a shofar in the synagogue, a man holding the Torah, a Madonna and Child, and a study for a painting of Jesus on the cross.

Of the Christian symbols he used, the crucifixion seemed to fascinate Chagall most. One early use of this subject is the 1912 painting Golgotha. In it a gigantic John and a diminutive Mary stand at the foot of a cross where a child Jesus is crucified.

The crucifixion as a subject for his paintings seems to increase substantially in the period from the late thirties to the fifties. He painted crucifixions titled Descent from the Cross, Yellow Christ, Crucifixion and Candles, and Persecution. An interesting feature of many of these is the use of a Jewish prayer shawl for Jesus’ loin ...

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