Why this picture? Module 7

Christ as a Jewish martyr in Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion painted in 1938

Together with Picasso’s Guernica, the White Crucifixion is one of the most powerful condemnations of war and hatred in the period between the two World Wars, painted by Marc Chagall (1887–1985). At the centre of the canvas, a crucified Jesus almost floats in a space that includes symbols of pain and brutality. Chagall shows a world threatened by violence and oppression, like in the dystopian works of George Orwell or in the poetic warnings of Wystan Hugh Auden.

The 1938 painting White Crucifixion represents a critical turning point for the artist Marc Chagall: it was the first of an important series of compositions that feature the image of Christ as a Jewish martyr and dramatically call attention to the persecution and suffering of European Jews in the 1930s.

In White Crucifixion, his first and largest work on the subject, Chagall stressed the Jewish identity of Jesus in several ways: he replaced the loincloth with a prayer shawl, his crown of thorns with a headcloth, and the mourning angels that customarily surround him with three biblical patriarchs and a matriarch, clad in traditional Jewish garb. At either side of the cross, Chagall illustrated the devastation of pogroms. On the left, a village is pillaged and burned, forcing refugees to flee by boat and the three bearded figures at bottom left—one of whom clutches a Torah—to escape on foot. On the right, a synagogue and its Torah ark go up in flames, while below a mother comforts her child. By linking the martyred Jesus with the persecuted Jews and the Crucifixion with contemporary events, Chagall’s painting passionately identifies the Nazis with Christ’s tormentors and warns of the moral implications of their actions


The violence, persecution and martyrdom depicted make the painting a manifesto against the Nazis, identified as Christ’s tormentors, warning of the moral implications of their actions. Also, it recalls Renaissance religious paintings by Michelangelo and Rembrandt.