Pt 1: Spirituality in Marc Chagall’s Tudeley Church stained glass

AN INTRODUCTION: The question of the extent of Christianity’s presence in the art of Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is one that must be understood within the context of his life.

This dissertation will uphold that the East window in All Saints Church, Tudeley has a very present Christian spirituality to it. Not only are Christian tenets manifested in the Tudeley windows, but this dissertation will explore the degree to which we can see these as beliefs held by Chagall himself. It is to be noted that this is quite contrary to what academia would say, as we shall later see. His art can be seen as a reflection of his own worldview. Above all, the Jewish culture that Chagall was brought up in, and then the Christian influences of his close circle of friends, in the 1940s shaped his art.

This dissertation will also maintain that Chagall can be seen to reflect his own spirituality, and his profound interest in Christianity, crucially through the lens of his Jewishness. His work demonstrates an evolution of his thought, that can also be traced in the evolving way he speaks of the figure of Christ, and the crucifixion. The East window demonstrates the worldview Chagall had at the time, one that had greatly evolved from when he began his career. Something that, as we shall see, is not highlighted by academia.

I will aim to explore the relevant context of Chagall’s life that I believe ultimately lead to him creating the Tudeley East window in the way that he did.

It is also important to explore Chagall’s approach to beauty, and to outline the ways in which the Judeo-Christian worldview pervades Chagall’s East Window. He seems to be presenting more than mere comfort for a grieving family. It is not vacuous or insincere, rather he depicted something that he believed. Through the transcendental of Beauty, Chagall aims to present a winsome worldview, a solution for a humanity merely a few decades after a war that killed over 85 million people, and living through the Vietnam War, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Chagall was aware of human suffering, and as we will see presents beauty as a solution.

It will also be essential to assess the degree to which Chagall’s depiction of the crucifixion demonstrates an evolution in his career and his worldview. I will also examine how the crucifixion can be seen as redemptive, in the eyes of Chagall. I will analyse how his Kabbalistic upbringing shaped him unconsciously. We will also discuss how the symbolism of baptism and its relationship to the flood and death links to the East window, and to what degree this informs our reading of Chagall’s work knowing that he had a personal interest in baptismal symbolism. We will then explore the degree to which Chagall conveys his eschatological theology, through placing his window in the context of all twelve Tudeley windows, and briefly looking at his later works that meditate on the same topic. Finally, we will see how the culmination, and indeed the cause of his work is love, and how he sees this to be central to his work.

As mentioned above, though there has been extensive literature on Marc Chagall’s career, there is very little on his works depicting the crucifixion as their main subject. Many academics call the crucifixion a rare motif. For example, Franz Meyer’s reputed catalogue on Chagall only refers to fifty-seven of Chagall’s crucifixions. There are in fact over three hundred and sixty crucifixions. It is therefore a mistake to state that this was merely a rare motif that appeared after the Second World War, as claimed by numerous academics.

Regarding the differing academic views, it is important to note that I will be examining the few academics on Chagall who are interested in his crucifixion works. These range from mid-twentieth century academia, until the twenty-first century. It is interesting at this point to note the remarkable lack of attention paid to Chagall’s Tudeley windows by academics. In the numerous academic papers and monographs on Chagall I have examined, only a couple examine Tudeley, and unfortunately in very little depth. This has therefore obliged me to consult primary sources such as interviews and other direct quotations from Chagall from around this time. Remarkably, despite there being a lot from Chagall on stained glass windows, their symbolism, and his views on Christianity, there is little from Chagall himself on his work at Tudeley.

When examining the literature dedicated to Chagall, only three monographs, and two studies look to focus on the crucifixion in Chagall’s work. Firstly, the previously mentioned work by Franz Meyer, who was Chagall’s son-in-law. Meyer was a museum director and specialised in post-war art. Meyer says that the crucifixion merely represents suffering humanity. He claims that all ideas of salvation have disappeared in Chagall’s work. Indeed, Christ is merely depicted as a saintly Jew but certainly not anyone divine. Meyer claimed that Chagall displayed Christ’s humanity rather than any divinity. Meyer goes on to claim that the crucifixion could instead display Christ as a metaphor for Chagall, and his own experience as a Jew affected by pogroms during his life in Russia, and later by the Holocaust. During this period, Chagall and his first wife Bella were forced to flee France, and emigrate to the United States, due to the increasing threat to Jews caused by the collaboration between the French Vichy government and the Nazis.

Despite being the most respected art historian on Chagall, surprisingly Meyer’s work is very incomplete as his work on Chagall ceased in the 60s. For example, his most famous monograph, Marc Chagall. Leben und Werk was published in 1961. Much of his work on Chagall was published before Tudeley, and much of Chagall’s work around Christ. As we shall see this must radically change the perception of Chagall depicting Christ as solely human. Meyer did not consider the significance that Chagall’s crucifixion might have had in Christian monuments, something that this essay will argue greatly changed Chagall’s worldview. This is also important as Meyer is seen as the reference point for Chagall studies, and yet the final twenty-five years of Chagall’s career are missed out.

Secondly, Monica Bohm-Duchen wrote that all the crucifixions in the post-war period have to do with what was going on in Chagall’s life, and nothing more. However, this is reductive and too simplistic a view, as it does not consider Chagall’s changing view of the Christ figure and what his significance could be for a humanity in a modern age looking towards atheism rather than the transcendent. This will be expanded upon later. Ultimately, it is specious and not nuanced to claim that the crucifixions in Chagall’s work simply represent suffering and victimhood. This is understandable coming from Bohm-Duchen, as she has only written one work on Chagall; her area of study is post-war art. Coming from a Jewish background, one may also speculate that she understandably sees Chagall through the lens of Jewish persecution. However, this is not a balanced view, as we shall see.

Thirdly, we see the studies of Udo Liebelt’s hone on Chagall’s very early depiction of a child on a cross. Liebelt wrote that Chagall’s Golgotha, painted in 1912, depicting a child on the cross shows Chagall’s departure from a traditional icon of Jesus. However, this is only the case if one understands this figure to be Jesus. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to affirm that this figure is in fact Jesus, its other title is Dedicated to Christ, so it is very possible Chagall was merely depicting generic suffering. Much like Chagall’s early crucifixions, some would represent suffering generally, and not specifically the suffering of Christ. For example, we see that Chagall also depicted a crucified contemporary Russian Jew. The small child depicted in Golgotha need not necessarily be Christ. Liebelt however claims that Chagall’s aim was to subvert the traditional Russian iconography of the cross. Whilst this may be true early on in Chagall’s career, this is certainly not the case towards the end of his career when his art becomes more optimistic.

In the work of Hans-Martin Rotermund, we see the popular assertion that Chagall merely depicts Christ as the suffering servant from the Book of Isaiah. Rotermund was a German Protestant pastor, and art historian, who specialised in Biblical art. However, as with Meyer, his work was published before Tudeley, and before Chagall’s work in churches. Rotermund continues by claiming that Chagall’s art should be viewed from a Jewish perspective and its approach to salvation. Only through Christ’s suffering obedience will salvation be worked out. Once again, this is correct, but only to an extent, it captures only one facet of the whole.

As we shall later see, Chagall did very much see Christ as representing the suffering servant, but by the time he was working on the East window it simply cannot be claimed that this was the main idea in Chagall’s mind.

For Ziva Amish-Maisels, Chagall merely used the Christian symbol of the crucifixion to show Christian viewers the plight of the Jews. Amish-Maisels was an Israeli art historian specialising on the Holocaust’s effect on art. Despite publishing her work on Chagall and Christ after the Tudeley windows, she focusses too much on the importance of the Holocaust to Chagall’s late work.

Moreover, Charles Sorlier said that Chagall’s crucifixion is all about syncretism. Sorlier was a French artist, and a close friend of Chagall. He claimed that Chagall is merely showing that all religions are the same. They can all be melded together. This is true to a limited extent; Chagall only had an interest in showing the common threads between Judaism and Christianity, and we shall see to what extent this was the case. Once more, however, this does not take a holistic view of Chagall’s approach towards depicting Christ. For Chagall, Christ did indeed represent a continuation of Judaism, but Sorlier does not expand upon how this is made manifest in Chagall’s work, and what it shows about Chagall’s personal views.

Another trenchant yet inadequate analysis is one put forward by Gilles Plazy, a French painter and journalist. Plazy wrote that the depiction of Christ in Chagall’s work is merely about humanity reconciling itself with itself. Chagall is trying to find an answer to suffering, and concludes that the answer is hope despite suffering, and this then produces a confidence in love and beauty. One however needs to know what led Chagall to believing this. Chagall was deeply rooted in New Testament theology, so it is essential to view his appreciation for love and beauty through this.

For Jean Leymarie, the French art historian, Christ is profoundly human in Chagall, not God. Again, this is only true to a limited extent. In the East window of Tudeley, we will see that Christ’s identity must be defined by his surrounding figures, and colours.

It is only Sidney Alexander, the American art historian, who takes a wider approach to Chagall’s depictions of the crucifixion. This position is not focussed on Chagall’s early work, like Liebelt, or reduced to Chagall’s post-war period as asserted by Bohm-Duchen. Alexander claims that Chagall’s interest in the crucifixion spans across his career, rather than the popular theory that it only appeared after the Holocaust. Despite this, he only concludes that it is a symbol of the Jewish martyr, and little more. Alexander does however mention that there are links to Christianity in depicting the crucifixion, there is however no attempt to draw out a systematic theology in Chagall’s work.

The French theologian Geneviève Schmitt-Rehlinger claims that Chagall was profoundly interested in the crucifixion as a Christian symbol and does well to acknowledge the profound and unacknowledged interest Chagall had for the crucifixion motif. However, she does not explore conclude that Chagall’s personal spirituality changed over time, to the extent that he may have been a Christian at the end of his life. All these views are therefore insufficient. They all see through cracked glass; they capture aspects of Chagall’s art, but not all its meaning.

All the academics mentioned make the mistake of reading Chagall’s crucifixions in a secular manner. This is a mistake, as it misunderstands Chagall’s background, one that was profoundly affected by religion, and ignores Chagall’s correspondence with friends, many from his close circle who were Christian evangelists. This has not been mentioned by academics. No link has been made between this latter point and Chagall’s art with Christian themes.

Secular readings minimise the importance of the cross in Chagall’s work. They simply see in it a symbol of the persecuted Jew; one who has been hunted and violated. These academics then link the crucified Christ to the Holocaust. This secular reading is pushed to the extreme when simply seen as the persecuted Jew and nothing else. It is possible to acknowledge that the horror of the Holocaust did profoundly affect Chagall, whilst also accept that this was not the main aspect of his work – the two are not mutually exclusive. It seems evident that something is missing, when knowing Chagall’s later work to be full of colour and joy. It therefore feels jarring when suggested that his crucifixion paintings merely represent Jewish persecution.

On the other hand, religious readings might say that Chagall’s Christ becomes the saviour, the Messiah, God, and the second person of the Trinity. Although these could be true, these require more evidence, gleaned from Chagall’s entire life, and his correspondence and interviews. Unlike the idea of the suffering Jew, which is less difficult to establish, the idea that Chagall may be depicting something rooted in Christian theology is harder to prove. However, it is possible to find when correlating what we know about Chagall’s life and looking at Tudeley’s East window. It is however noteworthy that these interpretations of Christian influence were rejected by Chagall. However, later we shall see how these should be interpreted within the wider context, and whether, seen in the context of his entire life they are less specious claims than initially thought.

One can track Chagall’s spiritual evolution through the chronology of him depicting the crucifixion. This dissertation will explore the extent to which it can be argued that his crucifixions were in response to the suffering he saw around him. Chagall’s proposed solution is through Christ crucified.

This all being said, it is possible however to fall into the trap of what is known as the Kuleshov effect. That is to say, the idea that the interpretation of something is entirely dependent on its context. For instance, what an artwork is placed next to. This is certainly powerful when looking at Chagall’s work in its context, certainly when it is a Christian subject matter, in a Christian place of worship. In this sense, it is important to be careful when assessing the degree to which Chagall was influenced by Christian spirituality. One must separate to an extent the building of All Saints Church, Tudeley, and the subject matter. However, viewing the artwork in context can be helpful, given we know Chagall came to Tudeley after the East window had been installed, and decided to create another eleven windows. Therefore, we can assume that Chagall got a sense of the atmosphere of Tudeley, its silence, and its light. To work out the degree to which Christian theology is present in Chagall’s East window, we will focus solely on the artwork rather than the fact that it is set within a church, although this is important to an extent.

One final interpretation by Alexander is important when considering the extent to which Chagall was influenced by Christian spirituality. Alexander asks whether we should see Chagall’s work in the same way as mediaeval frescos. By this he means, artworks where the artist would merely paint the form, and the meaning would be placed onto that form by the priest. In other words, to we must be aware of the extent to which meaning really can be added which may be theologically correct but completely unlinked to what Chagall was thinking.

Ultimately, the aforementioned academics neglect the fact that Chagall was deeply affected by his environment namely, his close circle of Christian friends. The aspects that the academics mention are correct, however, these were only parts of Chagall’s career. Throughout Chagall’s career, through the cross, we can see Chagall’s spiritual evolution. 

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