… Under newly consistent light and amid the slick renovation, Chagall’s Jesus wears a sort of turban on his head, and instead of a loincloth he dons a Jewish prayer shawl, or a tallit. Surrounding the central crucifixion scene, a synagogue burns to the right, rabbis fly in the air above (where one might expect angels), and a pogrom ensues to the left. Above Jesus’ head, on the titulus, Chagall writes the Latin acronym “INRI” and, in jumbled Hebrew and Aramaic, “Jesus the Nazarene, king of the Jews.”
Whether Chagall, who grew up with extensive Jewish instruction despite the multitude of errors in many of his Hebrew inscriptions, knew that the way he spelled Jesus’ name in Hebrew also doubled as the rabbinic acronym “May his name and his memory be wiped out” is debatable. But it’s certainly clear that the work “owns” Jesus as a Jew. And as the Art Institute website observes, it aims to “dramatically call attention to the persecution and suffering of the Jews in 1930s Germany.”
Gretchen Buggeln, professor of Christianity and the arts at Valparaiso University’s Christ College in Indiana, admitted she didn’t know that Chagall’s “White Crucifixion” was a papal favorite. But she wasn’t surprised, given the pope’s view of Jesus as a human and divine “exemplar of compassion.”
Read more of my article “Pope’s favorite painting returns to Chicago after seven-month exile” in National Catholic Reporter.