When Marc Chagall began to use images of Jesus's crucifixion in the 1930s to symbolise Jewish suffering under the Nazis, many Jews found it disturbing. After all, Jews had long been blamed for the killing of Jesus and were repeatedly persecuted as a result. By using the Crucifixion in this way, Chagall represented innocent Jewish victims by the religious symbol of many of their oppressors.
Now the Ben Uri Gallery has organised (in conjunction with the Mascalls Gallery in Kent) an entire exhibition which examines the use of the crucifixion over the past century. While it does look at how Jewish artists have sought to use traditional Christian iconography in a new way, it also explores how the subject changed from purely religious to become a paradigm of suffering in general. It includes works by leading British artists, from Stanley Spencer and Graham Sutherland to Tracey Emin.
Centrestage is the Ben Uri's star new acquisition, the recently discovered Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio, purchased at auction last year. This is one of several works made by Chagall that features a crucifixion scene. He used the image as early as 1913 to comment on Russian pogroms and then returned to it in 1930 when he became worried about Hitler's growing power in Germany. His aim was to remind Christians that Jesus was Jewish and that they should stop the persecution of his brothers. He did this by clearly identifying Christ as Jewish.
In this particular work of 1945, Christ wears phylacteries and a prayer shawl over his head which streams down his back. His obvious nudity is a reference to the fact that Holocaust victims were stripped before being gassed or shot.
In British-Jewish artist Emmanuel Levy's 1942 painting Crucifixion, Jesus again wears a prayer shawl and phylacteries but is dressed in the typical clothes of an Eastern European Jew. Whereas most crucifixion scenes carry the label 'Jesus of Nazereth, King of the Jews', here the inscription bears just one word, 'Jude', German for 'Jew'.
Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak also contributes to the theme. He often paints a famous image of a child held at gunpoint in the Warsaw Ghetto to represent all the friends he lost during the war. In his1995 work Study 1, we see only the head and hands of the child. The rest of the body is concealed behind a wooden door that resembles a coffin. Bak said about the work: "When you superimpose the image of the crucified Son on that of the little Warsaw boy with his uplifted arms, you are made to wonder, 'Where is God, the Father?'"