a tale of two crucifixions #CIVA

Just how much vitality should there be in a crucified Jesus?

It is a peculiar question, no doubt. But it is a question that arises when different visual representations of the crucifixion are set alongside each other. This question was raised for me in a brief conversation with Tim Lennon during the recent CIVA (Christians In the Visual Arts) conference in Chicago. Lennon worked for many years as a conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago. Along with Linda Stratford and Bruce Herman, he offered reflections during a guided tour at the Institute during the conference. Given his training and experience, he was able to provide insight into the materials, condition, and provenance of various pieces.

While looking at Franciso de Zubarán’s The Crucifixion (1627) Lennon suggested to me that if there was anything unique about Zubarán’s representation, it was that this is a decidedly dead Jesus.

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Jesus’ face, here, is beyond pallid – it is grey with death. Lennon suggested that, unlike Zubarán’s crucifixion, many other such representations leave the dead Jesus with a certain vitality. While Zubarán presents the body of Jesus as strong, symmetrical, and almost-ideal, and while Jesus’ body may be described as merely pallid, the most striking aspect of the piece is the grey-blue shadow of death that lies across the face of Jesus.

This is entirely appropriate, of course, within a religious tradition that insists that Jesus did, in fact, die. On that Friday afternoon his body was taken dead from the cross. It was an end no one expected for the messiah, or this messiah, though they might have expected it if they had ears to hear what Jesus was saying.

As an aside, perhaps Zubarán’s painting is also a refusal of that quaint and out-dated theory of resuscitation. (Never mind, as Tom Wright points out, that it would have taken Jesus weeks to recover from the savagery that was visited on him before and during his crucifixion.) This is the messiah, God-with-us, and he is dead – at our hands. If he is to have life again, it will only be by way of a miracle.

Notwithstanding the iconoclasm of my own Reformed tradition, Zubarán’s is perhaps a portrayal we need – to the extent that it confronts us in a unique and powerful way with the reality of Jesus’ death. The one we proclaim as risen and ascended, and as the giver of God’s new kingdom, was decidedly in the realm of sheol, of death, of that great and impossible silence that is (in the truest sense of the word) unimaginable to us. It is only because he descended that he is able to raise us up with him.

But I have titled this post the “a tale of two crucifixions”.

And the second crucifixion I have in mind is the last piece we saw during that visit to the Art Institute of Chicago – namely, Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion. It is a world apart from the crucifixion given to us by Zubarán – and in fact may be subject to the criticism that this crucified Jesus retains an inappropriate vitality. But Chagall’s White Crucifixion perhaps has another lesson to teach us:


Chagall’s crucifixion presents a Jesus who is rooted in the Jewish tradition – not only that of first century, middle-eastern Judaism but also of mid-twentieth century, European Judaism. This Jesus does not wear a crown of thorns but the headdress of a Jewish prophet – and he does not wear a simple piece of white fabric around his waist, but the recognizable prayer shawl. Jesus here is presented as a Jewish martyr in a long line of such martyrs; he is one with his people in this suffering. Already here we have a reminder that has too often been needed within the Christian tradition – namely, that Jesus was and is a first-century Jewish man; rooted in the traditions and scriptures and worship of God’s people in that context.

The point of this piece by Chagall, however, is not first to make a theological statement about the role or identity of Jesus within Christian theology – rather, it is to highlight the profound (and stomach-churning) irony that some who profess to follow this Jesus, or have been shaped by Christian culture, are responsible for the violence done, and being done, to the Jewish people. Around the crucified Jesus are scenes of persecution. Jewish women, men, and families are forced to flee their towns and land, are having their homes and synagogues torched, and are being relentlessly pursued by Nazis and other armed forces. This piece was painted in 1938 – around the time of Kristallnacht.

In relation to this suffering of Jesus as a Jew, Aaron Rosen points to the a deeper meaning of the painting in his reflections on the unmoored ladder at the cross:

Not only does the unmoored ladder further underscore Jesus’ abandonment by humanity, it also points to his abandonment by God. The ladder – frequently  included by Chagall in his various imaginings of the crucifixion – is for him not only the implement of the deposition, it is also a reminder of Jacob’s ladder. As such, the ladder serves as a symbol of God’s promise. . .”I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” In the midst of the picture’s tempest of destruction – the ransacked synagogue, the burning homes, and fleeing refugees – this promise is called radically into doubt. . . The White Crucifixion leaves us to wonder whether God’s covenantal promises have literally gone up in smoke, ending only in suffering.

A tale of two crucifixions. One confronts us with the extent of God’s suffering love – God in Jesus goes as far as ashen-faced death, accompanying us to the place of our alienation and abandonment. The second crucifixion confronts us with Christian complicity in violence and injustice (particularly in relation to the Jewish people), and raises the difficult/impossible question of God’s absence in suffering.

These two paintings are almost as far apart as possible in the Art Institute building (in opposite corners of the building complex), but each in its way teaches us and confronts us in relation to Jesus.


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