Chagall’s “Peace Window”: Seeing through a glass brightly

“Stained glass has to be serious and passionate,” said Marc Chagall. “It has to live through the perception of light… For me a stained-glass window is a transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world.”

Chagall (1887-1985) was born to a poor Hassidic family living in Vitebsk, Byelorussia. With his mother’s support, and in defiance of his father, in 1907 he went to St. Petersburg to study with Leon Bakst, the Russian painter, theatrical scene and costume designer. Chagall became an early modernist, eventually creating works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramics, tapestries, and fine art prints.

From 1910 to 1914, Chagall lived in Paris, where he absorbed the thinking of the leading cubist, surrealist, and fauvist painters. During this period he painted some of his most famous images of the Jewish shtetl or village, and developed the features that became trademarks of his art. Strong and often bright colours portray the world with a dreamlike simplicity, and a blend of fantasy, religion, and nostalgia imbues his work with naive joy.

Chagall was a notable contributor to modern stained glass, yet he started late in his career. It was not until 1956, when he was nearly 70 years old, that he undertook his first major project, contributing windows to the village church at Assy, in the French Alps, along with Bonnard, Braque, Lipschitz, Matisse, and Rouault. From 1958 to 1960 he worked on windows for Metz Cathedral. Then, in 1960, he created twelve windows for the synagogue of the Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. They depict the tribes of Israel blessed by Jacob and Moses in the verses which conclude Genesis and Deuteronomy. Exhibited first in Paris and later at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, they were installed permanently in Jerusalem in 1962.

In 1964 Chagall created a stained-glass window for the United Nations in honour of Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN’s second Secretary General who was killed together with 15 other people in a plane crash in Africa. Called “Peace”, the memorial is some 15 feet wide and 12 feet high. It includes several symbols of peace and love, such as the young child in the centre being kissed by an angelic face emerging from a mass of flowers.

Art historians Ingo Walther and Rainer Metzger, in their book Marc Chagall, 1887-1985: Painting as Poetry (2000), summarize Chagall’s achievement as follows: “His life and art together added up to this image of a lonesome visionary, a citizen of the world with much of the child still in him, a stranger lost in wonder — an image which the artist did everything to cultivate. Profoundly religious and with a deep love of the homeland, his work is arguably the most urgent appeal for tolerance and respect of all that is different that modern times could make.”

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