Marc Chagall's Yellow Crucifixion

A History 323 Project (Fall 2001)

In fall semester 2001, two students in my History 323 course on the Holocaust did an art project that involved making a stained-glass version of the famous artist Marc Chagall's controversial painting, "The Yellow Crucifixion" (1943). This was one of several paintings Chagall did during this period in which he attempted to express the horror of the Holocaust by using the image of the crucified Christ in combination with overtly Jewish symbols. In this way, he linked Jesus to the fate of the Jewish victims of Hitler and used the most powerful image of suffering in the Christian iconographic tradition to confront viewers with the cruelties being inflicted on Jesus's people.

In "The Yellow Crucifixion," Jesus wears the phylacteries or tefillin donned by Orthdox Jews for their morning prayers. The off-center figure of the crucified Jesus shares the central space of the picture with a large depiction of a Torah scroll. In the lower part of the picture, burning buildings and figures in postures of agony represent the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Chagall's native eastern Europe.
Chagall's crucifixion paintings probably inspired the plot of Chaim Potok's popular novel, My Name is Asher Lev (1972), in which the principal character is a young Jewish artist grappling with the fact that the western artistic tradition is so heavily influenced by Christian imagery and that the crucifixion image is a uniquely powerful way of expressing human suffering.
For discussions of Chagall's crucifixion paintings, see the articles by Jacob Baal-Teshuva and Benjamin Harshav in Jacob Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective (1995)