Chagall’s Golgotha

Golgotha (or Calvary), 1912

Every year in late February, the Metropolitan Library System holds a weekend long book sale, where paperbacks go for 50 cents and hardbacks go for $1. It is a book lovers paradise. This year I hauled off roughly 18 books, one of which is a short essay with a collection of works by famous artist Marc Chagall. I started in on it earlier this week and came across a painting entitled Golgotha (seen above), which will be the focus for this blog.

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, a significant time of the year for many Christians, much like the Friends of the Library book sale for book lovers. Ash Wednesday signifies the start of the Lenten season, which culminates through Good Friday in Easter over a period of forty days. In short, the whole Christian tradition rests on the events that inspired this season of loss and celebration.

Enter Chagall’s Golgotha, which captures what many believe to be the pinnacle of the Biblical story: Jesus’ death on the cross on Good Friday.

In stunning, contrasting color and Cubist figures, Chagall portrays the agony, confusion, grief, and energy of that moment. Pac-man shapes, whirling circles, on-looking rowers, and backwards men carrying ladders create a sense of ambiguity and movement, while what appears to be a couple below the cross intertwine. Another woman stands resolute with palms open below the somewhat grotesque child-like shape of the Messiah seemingly floating on an invisible cross. It’s all rather vague, and yet not at the same time. Perhaps the resolute woman is Jesus’ mother, and the couple intertwined is John and Mary Magdalene. Perhaps the ladder-carrying man is Judas running off knowing his efforts have come to fruition. The characters in this painting, perhaps even the figure of the Messiah, is left up to interpretation.

Embedded in this painting is a sense of movement, of progression. Whether the man carrying the ladder is coming or leaving, a story is being told. The half-completed suns in the sky, or the rolling circles representing the dirt and earth point to some form of movement. We all know where this story goes, and I don’t feel the need to let you, dear reader, in on the secret surprise ending.

In other words, what I see in the painting is this: the continuation of the story is embedded within the grief. Christ is raised up on the cross with arms wide, even as he rises in ascension (perhaps also with arms wide). The sun rolls into blackness, even as the tombstone rolls away. The body is pinned up on the cross, even as it is taken down. People embrace in sorrow as much as they embrace in joy. The story cannot dwell in a singular place, and while Ash Wednesday would seemingly intend for us to begin “dwelling” in the grief and the tragedy of Christ dying, I would submit that Chagall’s Golgotha prompts us to reconsider this “dwelling” first and foremost as only temporary. Perhaps “linger” is more appropriate. If there is any dwelling to be had, it ought to be near the end of the story.

Regardless of one’s particular religious persuasions, he or she could also carry these observations to any sort of significant grief. As the couple intertwined at the base of the cross might suggest a romantic relationship of sorts, which (like life) has its beginnings and its endings. Marriage does not always last forever, but neither does divorce. Again, what I am suggesting is simply that the central message of Golgotha is that even the most terrible of griefs can be temporary; or put another way, resurrection only happens to dead things.

Indeed, it is resurrection that carries the story of Christianity. For some reason, many modern Christians get caught up in the death of Jesus, but forget about the resurrection. Often times, a gospel presentation consists of four simple elements: God created the world, humans messed it up, Christ died to redeem it and you, what is your response?

Do you see what’s missing?

The gospel is lost in this simple portrayal for Jesus came not just to die and redeem, but to live again and to reclaim this earth as God’s dominion. In his own prayer Jesus says: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” It’s almost as if Jesus loved this world so much he wanted to come back to it.

Let Chagall’s Golgotha be a reminder this Lenten season that the story continues. It does not stop with death. And for those who do not observe the Lenten season (or Christianity to begin with) then allow the broader sense of the painting to remind you that spring is coming, resurrection can only happen to dead things, and even the most terrible of griefs can be encoded with language for the next part of the story.

What does the painting prompt for you, dear reader? Did I miss anything? I barely touched on the contrasting colors…

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