Chagall the Edifier

Por Eduardo Zeind Palafox
Chagall the Edifier
Chagall the Edifier

Our scooping finite mind, which is jostling athwart the fleeting and hitherandthitering reality from morning to night, is prone to sublime chimeras, to helter-skelter expressions without some tail tressed by adjectives or some head made of nouns, and to descry odds from the top of its wavering teleology. We can regard this hodgepodge of mental movements, with Kant, as the main crux of the “human intellect” in an “unphilosophical state” (1). The bleak lack of philosophy leads us to give an apparent rhapsodical accommodation to the sundry deeds of the world, and such an arrayment stands for a “Weltanschauung”, which is conveyed through religious words (2), which as spells hie us to believe in divinities. This apparent rhapsodical accommodation might be called “common sense”.

And since the powwows of aesthetical critics can not ascertain and assess the grounds of the phenomenon termed “beauty” yet, and due to this they can not divide the edifying religious paintings from daubs crooning ill-punished debauchery, we allot here a Kantian exegetical method, which will be, I hope, useful to distinguish paintings doomed for the ahungered campfire from those earmarked for the athirst unfaithful sinner. My principal readers, that is, my Yankee, German, Russian readers, are acquainted with Kant’s antinomies, which will bubble in their memory as I grope across the white sheet.

If we hearken a god has a son, our unphilosophical mind, our common sense, will ween this effect is either an extension coming from the former being or a new entity that came out through that entity. If one embraces the first envisagement in order to ken some painting dealing with Jesus Christ, for instance, one will seek within the abstract limits of the image the aesthetical guile by which the artificer conveys the continuous relationship betwixt the branch and its leaf. But if we grant the second conjecture, then we will ascertain the wiles with which the begetter of coloured delusions has distinguished the stem from the fruit.

The quiet, or rather the “lily-livered” reader, and I am brandishing the Shakespearean disparaging term in a good sense, to test my words can contemplate two renowned examples of plastic craftsmanship, namely: Chagall’s White Crucifixion and Murillo’s Christ on the Cross. The first eidolon conveys the notion of continuity by homogenizing the world with a divine whiteness we can perceive in the protagonist, Jesus Christ, and in the raw stuff sustaining earthly anguishes. But, at the same time, when the eye is trudging through the port and starboard of the great ship of God, we gather the notion of distinction by relishing the colours of the raiments of the beleaguered folks. White, or abstract, or pure, or infinite, are God, the Torah, Jesus Christ, the spirits, the Cross, and coloured are the meek human endurances and rascalities.

By means of this natural, nay, coarse manner of peering a painting, it is possible to state whether the oeuvre of a beautymonger is religiously edifying or not before the eyes of a layman, and besides to dodge the tedious erudition of those flibbertigibbets so-called “connoisseurs”, who suppose history and the register of the motley aesthetical schools are the keys to fathom the soul of a set of coloured geometrical representations. Their whimsical explanations can find resemblances between the Christian cross and the horizontal arms of a tree, as Northrop Frye does (3). They are like a Don Quixote, who saw windmills representing giants and a principal lady clad in the apparel of an “onion-reeking country doxy”. They, to use the language of Samuel Johnson, “hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox” (4).

The unphilosophical mind guesses without some shade of criticism there are, in some places, spatial and temporal thresholds, but not in others. A fleshy son of a god, in accordance with the first heuristic fiction, belongs to the world of those tatterdemalions nicknamed “human beings”, and therefore he breasts the pangs of hunger, thirst, love, hate, and so on. On the other hand, if we yield our goodthinkfulness to the second fiction, we will believe this son is a pellucid, divine pontifex between the heavens and the dingy, paltry earth. Does the painting pry into the “nature’s bequest”, as Shakespeare writ, by brandishing lyrical lines, epic hues, dramatic miens? Did the painter wander far among the never-well-esteemed paradisiacal personages stitching the candles of God, or rather stars, and the fleeting human works? Did the author display “the mirth in heaven/ when earthly things, made even,/ atone together”?

In harsh words, Chagall is evincing the knickknacks of the ghostly, hoggish brothels of mankind, which are saturated by priggish knaves who always are grunting against God. Like a pensive star Jesus Christ is steering his weens towards the earth. The lanky body and the slumbered mien carry the notions of pain and peacefulness. At this point the lettered reader perhaps is remembering two biblical versicles (II Corinthians 12: 9): “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (5). The layman seer, peering these two contradictory expressions within the same form, reaches the smattering of mystery, or living contradiction. On the other hand, Murillo launches light upon a lonely Christian body, which by reason of it earns a brawny composure. And as we see, a skull stands for the numbskulls of humanity, and thus the Spanish bristles sever the threefold heavenly mirth from the multitudinous natural death.

Coarse minds and paragons of speculation are embossed by the quandary of whether we are hiking in freedom or guided by unavoidable forces. Dogmatic folks affirm we are unfettered feet in a romantic promenade. But the skeptical claque gainsays we are beings buried beneath a rocky joukery-pawnkering of arrears. In Kantian jargon, we could pour this thus: synthetical propositions, that is, the uttering of objects and predicates singularly and accidentally jointed, are the linguistical consequences of the former stance. Analytical propositions, that is, the expression of objects and predicates universally and necessarily linked, are the verbal staples of the latter mental pitch. Jesus Christ, shrouded by analytical garments, would be regarded as a preacher of laws, but overjoyed by syntheses and anarchy would pass for a soothsayer.

The sundry goings-on depicted by Chagall suggest the idea of chaos (6). The perennial swish of vice is the common token of our free will (7), which in the image is transmogrified and appears as being fire, fear, sorrow, etcetera. If God has instilled into us the gift of liberty, by implication or common sense he can not obviate our gangsterish handlings, and Jesus Christ is, therefore and metaphorically, like a haruspex, that is, a scrutinizer of dusty (8) guts who can utter the joining of accidents and singularities. But Murillo has righted a grandeur that by its wise wounds and its wandering “wondrous far” athwart the wilderness of the scared human heart has perished. Did Jesus Christ know he would be assassinated? If he ignored it, he was like a well-endowed sociologist able to knit statements on the nigh and far future. If he knew it, he was plainly a body expelling a lawful Aramaic voice.

Each civilisation faces the nerve-racking chore of contriving a religious mythology, whose chief end is to throw into the naiveness of the architectonic human mind a tirade commenced by some hempen homespuns and concluded with the tantrums of chastised wrongdoers. This anthropological trait requires, I guess, skillful contrivers of tales. But, nonetheless, within the belly of every society there are atheologists engaged in rebuking those pious literary gewgaws. They assure that our world does not boast those reasonable clues, and that it is a feeble, transient and perfunctory theater whose plays are suddenly cracked, and not intellectually finished (9). If we conceive the seer of a painting as being the heir of the celestial perquisites swaggered, for instance, by the Bible, the work of the artist should not be a frozen scenery, but one beseeching to be kenned through other scenes. But if such a veer is an archive of disparaging incredulity, then the sacred kith and kin proffered by the painter, or dauber in the eyes of these atheistical eyeballs, are mere useful crass bugaboos to wean men from sin.

The cardinal or mathematical eye of common sense forks Chagall’s whiteness into four quarters: north, south, east and west, and is inured to tread images from top to bottom and from right to left. The vortex amongst those points and trampings is Jesus Christ. But the ecclesiastic, learned eye sees symbols and will eschew bewraying the official meaning of the oeuvre. Before his eyes there is neither a circle nor a cross, but a motley web of riddles. Murillo, contrariwise, hoisted a fashed personage in solitude, who brings to our memory that “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26: 41). The impious man will rail against an injustice, and the faithful will dip his heart in the distraught casualty, who was wrought by Providence.

In substance, whilst Murillo divides the never-never land from the terrestrial and brushes the haecceity of a providential partaker, Chagall joins the beguiled uncouth dust and the infinite wisdom of God and besets the seer to guess our unjust world could be a different one. Chagall, here, is the edifier.


(1) The Kantian German of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft expresses this thus: “der gemeine Verstand” (B 3). These words, in plain English, stand for the concept of “common sense”. Kant says, too, “gemeine Menschenvernunft” (A VIII).

(2) The religious words “soul”, “world”, “God”, in philosophy are poured as “substance”, “causality”, “reciprocity”, and in logic as “category”, “hypothesis”, and “disjunction”.

(3) At the University of Toronto (1980-1981) Frye delivered 25 lectures dealing with the metaphorical system of the Bible. “Rivers”, “garden”, “cattle”, “blood”, etc., are images that knit the multifariousness of both Testaments. Accessed November 3, 2022, heritage.utoronto.ca/frye/full-lectures.

(4) Preface to Shakespeare.

(5) Holy Bible. New Living Translation. Second Edition, Carol Stream, Illinois, 2007.

(6) The unflinching rackety circle of Chagall suggests to my mind the word “Ragnarök” (Old Norse), in German “Götterdämmerung”, which in English means “doom of the gods”.

(7) “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (King James Bible, Genesis 6: 5).

(8) As the brooming words of the Lord God say (Genesis 3: 19): “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”.

(9) Some sniveling critics, as Johnson points out in the aforesaid preface, blow the lack of classic structure in the works of Shakespeare. But Macbeth’s author, like the “ens realissimum” contrived by those atheologists, “shortened the labour, to snatch the profit”.

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