Erica Levin: Marc Chagall’s Works of Peace


I do not think I know one Jew that was not affected by the Holocaust. As a Jew, you are raised knowing a piece of yourself is missing, that it was lost years ago, taken from you. As a Jew, you are expected to come to terms with a part of your family being murdered, that they died before they could become known. From your youth you are forced to grapple with themes of incredible hatred and horror. Coming to terms with the images of your nightmares as the reality of your history causes great inner conflict.

While everyday Jews must live with what has happened to them, we must constantly learn from those who lived through it to gain a possible sense of what our ancestors faced and how to carry out their message. The artist Marc Chagall has embodies this task through his works. Born in Russia in 1887, Chagall experienced heavy anti-Semitism, moving to France in 1910. In France, Chagall, lived through WWI and the expulsion of the Jews in France during WWII, being granted asylum to the US. Chagall’s vivid paintings of these times allow for us to live through his experience with him as he tries to come to peace with what was done.

Chagall’s early works depict a happy life living in the Jewish ghetto in Russia. His paintings incorporate Jewish imagery, a defiant stance against anti-Semitism in Russia, which made these depictions dangerous. Chagall painted the original Fiddler on the Roof, the inspiration for the musical. These images of joy and freedom of expression are a rebellion to the repression Chagall was placed under. It would have been much easier for Chagall to hide his culture and accept Russia’s restraints in exchange for his life, but Chagall instead decided to peacefully protest through his paintings. Chagall’s work as helped keep the Jewish tradition alive, allowing us to still explore our culture’s past through his images.

Chagall’s paintings evoke the importance of his Jewish heritage and religion in helping him come to and push towards peace in a period of great conflict. Chagall’s works during his time in France in the beginning of WWII reflect his grappling with religion and God when it seemed as if there was none. Chagall’s piece the White Crucifixion, displayed above, portrays Jesus on the Crucifix, draped in a Jewish prayer shall. As Jesus suffers on the cross, Jewish figures are suffering all around him, having their homes destroyed, being burned in synagogues, and being forced to flee. The image inverts the idea that the crucifix is purely a Christian symbol, dividing the Jews from Christians. Instead, Chagall uses the Crucifix as a symbol of common suffering. It presents everyone as human, poignantly targets those who choose to bring down suffering on others, and reminds them that they were once the sufferers. A prolific statement, the symbolism’s great meaning holds significant power. The painting insights the groups depicted to feel empathy towards one another, promoting peace. In the end, Chagall’s painting serves as a reminder of our common ground, presenting us all as equal. It serves as a reminder of the horrors of the past and our promise to never make those mistakes again. He leaves us with this image of his hope for peace.

When the tide turned and it was no longer safe for a Jew to stay in France, or the risk of persecution, Chagall work towards moving to the US. As a famous artist the New York Museum for Modern Art helped Chagall get extricated to the US’ saving him and his family. Decades later, Chagall relayed his thanks in an artwork for peace. Following the 1961 death of the United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold in a plane clash, Chagall was commissioned to create a memorial to Hammarskjold and all those who died in the cause of world peace. Chagall’s piece was a freestanding stained glass window, with faith symbols, and a heaven-meets-earth setting. Chagall’s window was created in part as a thank you to the country that granted him asylum in his time of need during WWII. His window entitled Peace signifies the power of those saviors in conflict. For Chagall, the US displayed humanity towards him. By placing this thank you gift to the US at the UN headquarters, he is bestowing that power onto them. It will remain a constant reminder for those that aim for peace in the UN as to the power they hold. It is now up to them to show humanity and fight for peace in time of conflict. This work holds the UN up to the standards of which it was build, to prevent mass atrocities like the Holocaust, and promote peace.

Chagall’s stained glass artwork portraying the heavens, greatly contrasts his earlier piece of hell like imagery. The piece mimics a verse taken from Isaiah 9:2, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” It is a reminder that for those that had suffered, peace will come onto them. This image also provides an inner peace for those who lost love ones. It promises us that while they were placed in horrific circumstance they are in heaven now, at peace and we must not let our sadness consume us.

The power of art comes from the longevity of its message. With each new world circumstance the artwork’s meaning can be transformed and touch a new soul. It also serves as a reminder of a time when the world was not at peace, a warning for humanity to not carry out these crimes again. Chagall’s art is powerful in even in times of great divides he still hoped for us to be unified again, not to then turn to revenge. This message is powerful towards the pursuit of peace.



“Marc Chagall Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Story. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.