Understanding Pope Francis's Surprising Affinity For Jewish Art

World's Top Catholic Worships Marc Chagall

Papal Favorite: Marc Chagall’s “White Crucifixion” depicts Jesus, wearing a tallit instead of a loincloth.
Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
Papal Favorite: Marc Chagall’s “White Crucifixion” depicts Jesus, wearing a tallit instead of a loincloth.

By Menachem Wecker

Published April 08, 2013, issue of April 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Gallery 395A is tucked away in a corner on the third floor of the Art Institute of Chicago’s modern wing. After passing works by Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti and Salvador Dalí, viewers enter Gallery 395, which features a glass wall overlooking Lake Michigan and is packed with Constantin Brâncusi, Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore sculptures. Turning a corner, one is confronted by a nook, which contains a Max Beckmann self-portrait, Georges Braque’s “Woman at an Easel (Green Screen)” and Marc Chagall’s “White Crucifixion” (1938).

Despite its inauspicious presentation, the Chagall painting has been making international news. In interviews with Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin for the 2010 biography “El Jesuita,” Pope Francis identified “White Crucifixion,” which depicts a Jewish Jesus, wearing a tallit instead of a loincloth, as his favorite work of art. “He likes us, he really does,” Tweeted Miriam Shaviv, a columnist for Britain’s Jewish Chronicle, about the pope.

But there’s more to the painting than “owning” Jesus as a Jew. Surrounding Jesus, we see a synagogue, a Torah scroll and a shtetl burning, as armed men march carrying red flags. And in the bottom-right corner, the Wandering Jew, donning a blue cap and a green coat, lugs a sack as he trudges past the smoking Torah.

That the chief executive of the Catholic Church has an affinity for a painting that was created by a Russian Jewish artist and also includes the symbol of the eternal wanderer, who was punished for abusing Jesus and became the pretext for centuries of anti-Semitism, is drawing a range of reactions.

“Chagall is a common preference of viewers who are not interested in the art world,” said James Elkins, professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Without evidence that the pope has an extensive interest in visual art, it’s likely that his preference for Chagall has something in common with others’ affinity for the works of Georges Rouault, Henri Matisse of the Vence Chapel and Maurice Denis, according to Elkins, author of “On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art” (Routledge, 2004). “They are among the rare exceptions to the general rule that modern and contemporary art are disengaged from the church,” he said.

“I know nothing of the pope’s taste, so I have no idea why he likes that painting,” said Matthew Baigell, who is professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University and has published extensively on Jewish artists. Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., sees things differently. The notion of a Jewish Jesus and its reference to Jews and other marginalized groups is very appealing post-Vatican II, he said.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.