Pt 2: Spirituality in Marc Chagall’s Tudeley Church stained glass

CHAGALL’S CONTEXT: Brought up in a shtetl in Vitebsk, a Russian town, Chagall would have been deeply immersed in Jewish culture. When he was born, half of Vitebsk was Jewish. Chagall later said that his religious family deeply influenced him. It is important to be perceptive with Chagall’s statements as he could often be contradictory. For example, despite saying that his family affected him, Chagall then said “I am not and never have been religious.” As we shall later see when talking about Christianity and about meaning in his paintings, Chagall often made opposing statements.

Chagall was brought up as a Hasidic Jew, a sect that is distinguished for its highly mystical state of mind; in Hebrew, Hasidic means Pious. Crucial to know when studying Chagall is that Hasidism is steeped in Kabbalah. Kabbalah, simply means Tradition in Hebrew. Kabbalah consists of ancient legends, and mystic reflections on the Hebrew Bible. After the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, Rabbinic Judaism forbade the teaching of these esoteric doctrines, so Kabbalah became seen as secretive. Nevertheless, from then on Jewish literature became mystical, where reality was as important as fantasy. For example, one Kabbalistic belief is that the souls of great sinners are transmigrated into the bodies of animals, as they wander between Heaven and Hell.

Knowing this context of Kabbalah, the root of Hasidism, it is no surprise to see Chagall’s interest in surreal scenes, such as flying goats and cows. He believed in a spiritual realm, and he thought it could be depicted. His commitment to the importance of mysticism in art is reflected in him asking whether there would “be a single great picture, a single great poem […] in the world without mysticism?” To Chagall it was central.

Despite growing up in a profoundly Jewish culture, for someone who seemed to exhibit Hasidic thought so clearly in his work, Chagall left school, ceasing Hasidic studies, at the age of thirteen. In 1973, six years after having installed the East window, in Tudeley, Chagall said that “ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. […] it is the greatest poetry of all time.” This interest in the Bible was emphasised growing up where he did, as the other half of Vitebsk was Russian, this allowed him to discover Christian art. For instance, he was a great admirer of Andrei Rublev (1360-1427), the icon painter who captured the mystery of Christ. Naturally, engaging with Christian art was shocking for the Jewish community, as the Russian and Jewish community did not mix. Indeed, as François Le Targat put it, “he transgressed the Law by drawing human characters and animals, to the great displeasure of certain members of his family.” Chagall later said that he had a “will to go against the general stream.” The mere act of painting estranged him from the rest of his family. By painting he separated himself from them due to Judaism forbidding the drawing of creation. However, it must be emphasised that Hasidic Judaism is not a sombre belief system; art was permitted, it was simply not allowed to depict the world. Indeed, the influential Lithuanian Jewish rabbi Shneur Zalman (1745-1812) said that the task of the Jew is to “raise a song of joy and praise, with hymns and psalms, and with music and art.” Chagall’s early work can sometimes be sombre, however, it is possible that Chagall may have been influenced by Zalman’s ideas, as joy, praise and music is precisely what is prevalent in Chagall’s career as he matured.

Nineteenth century Jewish thought lead to an increase in popularity for the idea that Christ should be viewed in a sympathetic light, as a prophet. By the time Chagall was born in 1887, the view of Christ being a prophetic figure was widespread. This may explain Chagall’s interest in Christ upon coming of age at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This led to Chagall having a fascination with the figure of Christ, a love for the Bible, but both profoundly entrenched in Hasidic thought. It is crucial at this point to clarify that when Chagall referred to the Bible, he meant the entire Bible, and not just the Old Testament. Throughout his life he clarified this, saying that the Old and New Testament are to be seen as one work; in 1973, he declared “ils sont inseparables” – they are inseparable. This is not something emphasised by academics, yet it affects the way we understand his work when knowing his love for the Bible. It is important to specify that he saw the Bible as Jewish; the New Testament was written by Jews, so he saw Christianity as continuing Judaism. He said that first century Judaism “révèle le christianisme”; it reveals Christianity. He recognised that both Christ and Christianity were deeply Jewish.

Chagall was haunted by the numinous quality of Christian art, yet he remained a Jew brought up in the worldview of Hasidism. Chagall had a profoundly Hasidic approach to painting, he believed that his prayer was his work;. This fusion of Russian and Jewish aesthetics continued throughout the early stages of his career. Having been forced to leave Russia due to pogroms, Chagall worked in a series of studios in Paris called La Ruche which had many Russian artists.

Chagall first depicted a Christlike figure in 1912, with his previously mentioned painting Golgotha. It is difficult to prove that this is more than a mere motif, rather than anything resembling Christ. Instead, it depicts a child with his arms outstretched as if crucified. Early in Chagall’s career, Christ crucified came to depict persecution. For example, the White Crucifixion, painted in 1938 during Nazi persecution, shows Jewish suffering around Jesus. Throughout the first half of Chagall’s career, we see Chagall’s emphasis on Christ’s Jewishness. Chagall found precedent in the depiction of Christ as a Jew in the art of Mark Antokolsky (1840-1902), who depicted Christ wearing a kippa. Chagall’s understanding of the cross developed with time.

The cross started to really obsess him from 1908 – 1930, however it was merely a motif at this point; it was aimed at being provocative. Chagall’s beliefs were not Christian at this point. In his 1923 autobiography Ma Vie, he wrote “Dieu, ou je ne sais plus qui, me donnera-t-il la force?”, “will God, or I can’t remember who, give me strength?” Throughout his autobiography one detects that he acknowledges the existence of suffering, but he doesn’t know the solution for it. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Chagall, who was personally caught up in tragedy, chose to make the crucifixion into an archetype of the Jewish martyr, and of his own suffering. Throughout Chagall’s work we see the consistent theme of The Traveller. The Jew who is constantly on the move; he is not anchored anywhere. Chagall could not find anywhere to call home as he did not feel he belonged anywhere. He wandered geographically and immaterially, too. One could argue that Chagall manifests his Hasidic roots in the manner that he deals with suffering; there often seems to be a positive aspect to the scene, no matter how much suffering. Hasidism teaches that one can find God in anything, and the Jew’s task is to reveal the holiness in anything they deal with. Chagall believed that nothing was ordinary, instead everything had the capability of being extraordinary. In this sense, one ought to see Chagall not as an adherent to the creed of Judaism, but rather someone who depicts the spirit of Judaism, not its doctrine. Indeed, Chagall remained quite detached from distinctions of doctrine and belief between Judaism and Christianity. As previously mentioned, to Chagall, the Bible was to be read as a whole, including the New Testament. Chagall saw himself as a mystic, describing his work as being his way of praying; not only is this profoundly Hasidic in its feeling, but it is also uncannily similar to the outlook of Russian icon painters. Interestingly, in 1930, in the midst of Jewish persecution in Europe, Chagall began his illustration of the Bible. It took him twenty-six years to complete, and consisted of one hundred and five etchings.

The principle of mysticism in the Jewish context, is the knowledge of God. When seeing Chagall’s entire work, and its evolution through the lens of a tireless quest to know God, his art makes more sense; there is a traceable spiritual journey through his life, which we will explore later. This is especially poignant when seeing Chagall in his wider European context, where we see a culture that aimed to desacralize, and a contemporary philosophy that aimed to demystify. Yet in his work he is bringing in Hasidic, Slavic, and Christian imagery. Indeed, André Breton (1896-1966) said that it was solely due to Chagall that metaphor returned to painting. One may see this to be Chagall’s main contribution to art; he reawakened the idea of poetic representation. He avoided naturalistic depictions and abstract art, yet his art is still as real, given it examines the soul. Chagall was disenchanted with the scientific approach of French art, Cubism, and Impressionism, stating that art should above all be “un état d’âme”; a state of mind, or literally a state of the soul.”

For Chagall, it was the colour and lines in a painting that contained one’s état d’âme. It is important to know that this ‘state of the soul’ would change chronologically, hence we shall see that in Tudeley, in Chagall’s late career, the crucifixion is different to his earlier works, such as Golgotha or The White Crucifixion. Marq wrote that instead of an idea or a symbol, it was form that Chagall was mostly interested in. This is true to the extent that Chagall prioritised colour and its power to move and to conjure emotions. His art is deliberately spiritual rather than concrete. In this sense, his emphasis on form can be seen to be in the tradition of Plato; what he paints points to a higher reality. For example, if he paints a ladder it points to a higher reality. Nothing is random. The symbolism of the ladder will be explored in a later chapter.

In turn as the viewer, Chagall asks us to look at it from a purely visual perspective, like children. Chagall’s aesthetic is childish deliberately. He knew how to paint in a realistic manner, yet he said that one should deliberately paint in a non-realistic manner. This affirms the idea that Chagall’s thinking behind his art was about higher realities, and not just metaphors for persecution. Chagall said that “everything in art should correspond to the flow of our blood, to our whole being, even the unconscious.” This points to far more than mere colour and shape; he is pointing to human existence itself. As mentioned before, for Chagall the act of creating is a prayer in itself. However, he also said that he did not understand his pictures, saying that they were mere “pictorial arrangements that obsess [him].” He then said the theories “that others elaborate in connection with my work are nonsense.” This further suggests one needs to look beyond what was posited by academics in Chagall’s lifetime. It shows that the theories that Chagall’s crucifixions merely represent one thing are insufficient. Moreover, they are not profound enough; Chagall said, “my paintings are my reason for existence, my life.” Knowing the subject matter of his art, the depiction of joy triumphing over death or persecution, one sees his art is far more spiritual.

Before turning to the East window, and to its immediate context, it is of utmost importance to note that Chagall was close friends with Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) and his wife Raissa Maritain (1883-1960). He was a Catholic philosopher, and she was a Jewish convert to Christianity. They were gifted evangelists and lead Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), Max Jacob (1876-1944), Georges Roualt (1871-1958), and Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960) to convert to Christianity.

Chagall and the Maritains are first known to have met in 1928. As mentioned, until 1930, Chagall was obsessed with the cross as a motif, but in his Hasidic quest to know God, he was unclear what the cross meant, he simply knew that there was a problem in the world, and the cross represented that suffering. For Chagall, his early crucifixions represent humanity’s “déchéance”, the lowest point of humanity. Chagall saw himself as the wanderer, searching for somewhere to settle and call home. As we shall see, Chagall incarnates the Augustinian saying: “our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in God.”

In 1930, two years into knowing the Maritains, Chagall accepted a commission from Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) for an illustrated Bible. Chagall only painted the Old Testament, but spent twenty-six years on the project, with a finished product consisting of one hundred and five etchings. In 1940, the Maritains arranged for the Chagalls to be brought over to America to escape Vichy France. It was then that the Chagalls and the Maritains became closer in their friendship. It is fascinating therefore to see in exact parallel with this event, that Chagall expanded his Biblical subject matter to the New Testament to then include the Annunciation (1956), the Holy Family (1970), the Flight into Egypt (1944), the Prodigal Son (1975), the Good Samaritan (1967), the Sermon on the Mount (1976), and Christ’s Triumphal Entry (1976). Upon coming to Tudeley for the first time in 1967, for the installation of the East window, Chagall loved the church so much that he exclaimed, “c’est magnifique! Je les ferai tous!”, he proceeded to paint the eleven remaining windows. All this shows that he clearly had found a love for Christianity. It is undeniable that Chagall was profoundly attracted to Christianity in his later life, and yet the correlation between his relationship with committed evangelists and his sensitivity towards Christ has been widely ignored by academia.

Having laid out Chagall’s context, his influences from Jewish and Christian culture, and his growing love for the Bible, we may now focus on the context of the East window. The window was commissioned by Henry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid (1909-1976) the father of Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid (1942-1963), who died in a sailing accident at the age of twenty-one. Chagall’s designs were interpreted into glass by Charles Marq, who also helped him with his windows in Reims cathedral.

The very fact that Chagall chose to make stained glass may be seen as inherently Hasidic. In Judaism, Tikkun Olam is the spiritual process of liberating and retrieving the divine light trapped within the material realm, therefore restoring the world to its initially intended state of perfection. This is accomplished through the performance of Mitzvot, the commandments of the Torah. Chagall explained that a stained-glass window is “a transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world, […] it has to live through the perception of light.” He went on to say that “to read the Bible is to perceive a certain light, and the window has to make this obvious through its simplicity and grace. The idea of redeeming the world is a massive theme in Chagall’s work, culminating in one of his final works The Tree of Life, a stained-glass window in Sarrebourg, depicting Chagall’s view of the eschaton. Humanity is redeemed, surrounded by Christ’s life. This theme of redemption will be expanded upon in a later chapter. 

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