Beauty and Suffering

I learned today, via the UK’s Telegraph, that I share with newly-elected Pope Francis a favorite painting: Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion. We also share an appreciation for the film, Babette’s Feast, his favorite, though I’d place Gabriel Axel’s masterpiece just behind Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Roland Joffe’s The Mission in my personal cinema trifecta. All of them stand at the intersection of beauty and suffering, and while Babette’s suffering – and that of her two patronesses – may be subtler than others, we nevertheless feel it through the medium of art.

Pope Francis and I may find meaning in these works for very different reasons, I don’t know. Perhaps one day, after the fuss, scrutiny, demands, and accusations now directed his way grow routine, if not necessarily manageable, he’ll share some thoughts on art and film. I, for one, am interested in the aesthetics of this highly educated son of an immigrant railway worker, a bishop from the global South who cast aside trappings of power for simplicity and solidarity with the poor.

I’m merely speculating, but perhaps he shares my attraction to art that unites beauty and suffering – always a precarious conjunction. Beauty took a serious hit in the last century, when the most self-consciously cultured and progressive regions of the world were torn apart by wars, both hot and cold. In a time of mass death and threatened global destruction, aesthetics began to resemble a hobby for the privileged, a means to disguise power, a distraction from the newly discovered truth that progress hadn’t eliminated human violence, though it made it more efficient.

Beauty has its defenders, of course, including Elizabeth Scarry, whose On Beauty and Being Just is a welcome, if not entirely satisfying, exploration of how beauty can awaken a concern for the suffering Other. I’d put it this way: loveliness that diverts attention from real pain isn’t beauty at all, but mere prettiness disconnected to truth and goodness, those other numinous unities we approach, if at all, through the things of this world. Like Scarry, I know how true beauty serves, not as an anodyne, but as a window into the alienating prison of suffering, focusing my attention when I’d rather turn away.

In the West, no image performs this mysterious task so well as depictions of the crucifixion. None, therefore, is so dangerous. Therein lies so much of the power of Chagall’s Jewish crucifixion images. Like the elder Breugel’s Procession to Calvary, White Crucifixion places the Crucified in the middle of contemporary life. For Chagall, this means pogroms and desecrated synagogues rather than the depredations of mercenaries for the Spanish crown in Breugel’s painting. (See Lech Majewski’s adaptation of Michael Francis Gibson’s book, The Mill and the Cross.) Chagall’s Jewish imagery vividly calls to mind centuries of Christian misuse of Jesus’ death as an anti-Jewish indictment, inverting Jesus’ kenotic death into a justification for oppressive violence.

Chagall understands the violent death of this Jewish man, Jesus, better than many nominal Christians. As the artist wrote many years later:

For me, Christ has always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr. That is how I understood him in 1908 when I used this figure for the first time… It was under the influence of the pogroms. Then I painted and drew him in pictures about ghettos, surrounded by Jewish troubles, by Jewish mothers, running terrified with little children in their arms.

Chagall’s image has, for various reasons, angered some Christians and Jews. Anger seems a perfectly normal response, though what I feel in the presence of this image is deep sadness, an uncomfortable pricking of conscience, a call to join not merely in the redress of wrongs, but in restoring the good. I find White Crucifixion a bridge, not a roadblock, one I can’t imagine crossing without beauty as my guide.

The new pope has been accused of varying degrees of complicity with or non-action against the Argentine dictatorship in the early years of his priesthood. The Church in Argentina has publicly apologized for its behavior during la guerra sucia, though questions remain about who did or did not do what and when. I’ll wait to see if any light comes from the current heated rumors, hoping as well that renewed interest in that dark time encourages those in the United States to learn more about their own country’s substantial military and financial support of Argentina’s Dirty War over several US administrations.

I don’t know what Jorge Mario Bergoglio did or did not do for or against the Argentine junta. I don’t know how I would have acted in such dangerous times and circumstances. I don’t even know how I could stand in judgment from my position of comfort and wealth in the global North. I do know he showed consistent support for Argentina’s Jewish population and that he knows and cares for the poor. I know that he is, like me, caught in an immense web of all but invisible injustices, forever directing our attention away from the suffering.

Perhaps that’s Pope Francis’ reason for loving The White Crucifixion. I know it’s mine.

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