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!
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • 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.