Embracing Marc Chagall’s refugee Christ

The painter’s Exodus calls to mind the Passover, the Shoah, Ukraine, and the southern border.

If you hold your arms out like the crucified Jesus before you, you can just touch both edges of Marc Chagall’s Exodus (1952–66). It’s an intimidating canvas to stand before, not just because of its size (51 x 64 in.) but also because of its composition. Two radical decisions stand out right away. First, Chagall chooses Jesus, rather than Moses, to preside over Israel’s flight from Egypt. Second, he inverts the traditional orientation of the scene so that we, the viewers, are not running with the people of Israel toward the Red Sea. Instead we are looking at them from the perspective of the sea itself. In a sense, we are the sea. The people are running directly at us.

This perspective confronts any viewer of the image with a crisis: If we are the sea, will we part and let this endangered people pass on dry land? Will we welcome those running toward us, or will we crash down on them with violence?

The outcome in the world depicted on the canvas is not at all certain. This is not a typical exodus image of deliverance and celebration. Here instead is a world of dimly lit panic—of houses on fire, of women wailing with and for children, of men shouldering hurriedly packed sacks of treasured possessions, provisions, and even pets. It is an image not unlike those coming out of Ukraine, where the chaos of war threatens to blur the unique contours of each family’s tragic circumstance. Simply put, what we see on Chagall’s canvas does not map immediately or simply onto the exodus story we know.