The beginning of the 20th century brought the emergence of avant-garde impulses across Europe, with some of the most specific appearances happening in Russia. Namely, within the tsarist regime, a new generation of artists emerged, proposing new models of work influenced by the Russian folklore and the dominating European tendencies such as Futurism and Cubism. By rethinking the form, the painting techniques, and the overall approach to art, they introduced bold and highly innovative practices that led to maximum experimentation culminating after the October revolution in 1917 and the fall of the Russian Empire.
One of the most prolific proponents of the early Russian avant-garde, the founding father of the famous experimental art school the Vitebsk Arts College, an exceptional craftsman and according to many scholars the best known Jewish artist in art history was Marc Chagall. Constantly on the move throughout the major European cities, this notable figure developed a unique aesthetic profoundly infused by the Jewish folk culture while being influenced by Fauvism, Symbolism, and Cubism.
Chagall was no stranger to any medium, and although mostly celebrated for his paintings, drawings and book illustrations, the artist made a number of exceptional works in different formats such as ceramics, stage sets and tapestries.
However, a special place in his impressive oeuvre is held by stained glass that Chagall produced for various sacral and profane spaces. This medium enabled the artist to experiment with the properties of glass, achieve extraordinary coloration and visual effects caused by the natural light which illuminates the murals.
In his 70s, Chagall started designing windows and his first project of this kind was released in 1956 for the church at Assy. On many of his French and international commissions, the artist collaborated with Charles Marq at the Jacques Simon Workshop.
One of Marc Chagall’s projects included three stained glass windows for the Metz cathedral between 1958 and 1968, while in 1960 the artist was commissioned by Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester, to produce one window at Chichester Cathedral in England. The curiosity is that this particular window differs from other, more colorful glass works, since the dominant color here is red - affiliated with the colors of the nearby Benker Schirmer tapestry.
The windows at the All Saints’ church in Tudeley were commissioned by Sir Henry and Lady d'Avigdor-Goldsmid in memory of Sarah d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, their daughter who tragically died in 1963 at the early age of 21. The deceased young girl and her mother were perplexed by Chagall's work in the 1961 Louvre exhibition, especially with the windows designed for the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem, so the parents decided to commission Chagall to make twelve beautiful pieces in a blue color scheme.
In 1968 Chagall was commissioned by the Reims Cathedral to produce nine windows; the works were completed in 1974 and the artist reacted to the historical context of this pearl of Gothic architecture by honoring the colors of the medieval windows.
The only commission on which Chagall worked until his death in 1985 was for the St. Stephen’s church in Germany. After the completion, six windows in the east chancel and three windows in the transept were perceived as a sign of goodwill between the Jewish and Christian faiths.
One of the largest stained glass windows Chagall produced in the United States is the one colloquially called Peace Window at the United Nations building in New York City. The window commemorates the Secretary-General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjøld, who was killed in a plane crash in 1961. This work includes symbols of peace and musical notes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Hammarskjøld’s favorite.
In the 1920s, John D. Rockefeller Jr built Union Church in Pocantico Hills, New York, for which his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who was a great patron of the arts commissioned many artists to create stained glass windows. Chagall produced multiple memorial windows including the one called Good Samaritan commissioned by David Rockefeller in 1963 to memorialize his father, John D. Rockefeller.
In the early 1970s, Chagall visited Chicago while working on his mosaic The Four Seasons for the Chase Tower Plaza. The artist felt inspired band offered to make windows for the Art Institute of Chicago. After the completion of the windows, it was decided that they would commemorate the 200th birthday of the United States of America and that is how they were named the American windows. The six outstanding panels represent the country’s diverse cultural production, as well as religious freedom.
The last piece to mention to enclose this brief overview of Chagall’s stained glass production are stained glass windows made for the synagogue of Hebrew University's Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem in 1960. This particular series of twelve windows representing the twelve tribes of Israel perhaps summarize the best his style, as mentioned, rooted in Jewish folklore. The artist based his concept on the idea that the synagogue should be perceived as a crown offered to the Jewish Queen. After the completion, the windows were exhibited in Paris and then the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1961, and the following year they were installed permanently in Jerusalem.
After all the examples and the fact Chagall was a skillful practitioner able to conquer any media, the conclusion is that even in his old age he was a firm believer in public art and its potential to enhance any space and provide a place for contemplation and transcendence.
Editors’ Tip: Chagall: Stained Glass Windows
Marc Chagall, as other famous artists of the twentieth century, has worked in various genres of the visual arts, but no one has launched the monumental art of stained glass like Chagall. Windows in Metz, Saarburg, Mainz, Reims, Pocantico, Jerusalem, Nice, and Zurich are highlighted here, along with documentation of the enormous preparatory work and the various stages of designing and coloring the windows. This extraordinarily illustrated book, edited by Chagall's granddaughter Meret Meyer, is a triumph of beauty and technique, showing the many details of windows and all the preparatory drawing to help the reader understand the big picture. It is a book to savor and treasure.
Featured image: Postal mark featuring Marc Chagall UN stained glass window. Image creative commons.