Pt 3: Spirituality in Marc Chagall’s Tudeley Church stained glass

ON BEAUTY: In the practice of modern art, beauty has been seen as profoundly problematic. Given the modernist scepticism towards humanist and Christian ideas, artists find few grounds for creating traditionally conceived beauty.

In painting the East window of Tudeley, Chagall aimed to provide comfort for a grieving family. When responding to suffering, Chagall’s solution was to provide hope through the crucifixion. Maritain believed that the characters in Chagall’s Christian art gain the fullness of their meaning, as he believed that Chagall had understood the Christian faith, even if he was unconscious of it. Therefore what he depicted showed the gospel, regardless of whether Chagall aimed for this to be the case. If we take the principles of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, the Transcendentals, as a basis for being led to God, then it is possible to see Chagall as someone who, in his quest for God, prioritises the winsomeness of Beauty. In an age where Beauty was not prioritised, Chagall seems to guide us to a recognition of Goodness through Beauty, and then, eventually, to a recognition of Truth. Beauty is a highly significant subject in the Bible. From very early on in the Torah, we see that beauty is associated with holiness, mainly to the holiness that belongs to God. In a secondary manner, holiness refers to the attitude that those trusting in God in the Bible are commanded to adopt when worshipping. When God orders for the tabernacle to be built, the beauty in the work of the craftsmen is essential to creating the space. It is something entrenched in the Old Testament, and not obviously in the New, where we only find four instances of the word being mentioned. In the Old Testament, it is something both glorious and dangerous. It is glorious because it is seen as a reflection of the glory of God. It is dangerous because if it is not attributed ultimately to God, then it becomes idolatry. Chagall uses beauty not to be worshipped in and of itself. Rather, he uses it in the desired manner stated in the Old Testament, to point to God. His work is beautiful because he is showing something true, whether that is two lovers flying across the sky, or the plight of the Jews with Jesus in the middle. One might say that it is steeped in the belief of transcendentals. In the idea of realism, that all objects point to a higher reality. For example, realism posits that an object, for example a cat, is not simply labelled this but rather that the idea of a cat is a universal one. Realism claims that a cat, whether on Earth or elsewhere in the universe always remains a ‘cat’ : the name is not a social construct, rather it is pointing to the universal idea of a catness. In the same way, one gets the impression that when Chagall paints lovers or depicts Christ, he is pointing to transcendent realities. Indeed, something can be beautiful because it shows its ontological reality visually to the viewer. By this we mean its being; its reason for existence. So, when something shows what it is perfectly understood to be in the mind of God, then that thing logically brings us closer to God. Despite being close to Catholics, it is simply not known whether Chagall knew about these Thomistic ideas. However, this is not important. What is important is to see the importance placed on objects, the profound meaning that Chagall seems to place on figures that have significance and seem to draw the viewer closer to God. The idea of creating beauty to show God to the world is a Jewish one. Chagall had a love for God, and desired to be close to him, to become part of the divine nature. Indeed, as a child he wrote a poem “Take me, make me nearer to you! Say something! Explain… hide me in the altar with the Torah.” Later, in 1967, Chagall wrote “I carry my cross every day, I am led by the hand and driven on. Night darkens around me. Have you abandoned me, my God? Why?” This demonstrates his knowledge of both Hebrew (Psalm 22) and Christian scriptures (Luke 9:23). He evidently had a profound affiliation to Jesus. Knowing this, we can see the beauty of the East window as Chagall beckoning the viewer to look at the figure of Jesus, and see him as someone who we can identify with, when suffering. Through beauty, we are attracted to this. We are not scared into believing in Jesus through being told that we will be punished because of the Fall, rather we are desire Jesus, because we are attracted to the beauty of his person. In the same way someone might be attracted to a nut; through seeing its husk, we are attracted because it points to what is inside. Chagall is showing us Jesus, someone who looks out at us with loving eyes, and he beckons us to discover who Jesus is, and how he be the foundation for us in stormy times, just as we see him being to the figures around him.

As mentioned before, Chagall emphasised that one should only look at the form of the painting, and not to actively attribute meaning. This is interesting when examining the East window as everything is deliberately placed and has profound symbolism. This would imply that Chagall realised the winsomeness of beauty, and he is subtly inviting the viewer to share his quest to know God. Indeed, he said that “a painter should never come between the work of art and the spectator. […] the artist’s explanation of it can only limit it.” He also believed that “the Bible is the greatest work of art on the planet.” Knowing this, and the fact that he said that stained glass should aid people in their prayers, it can be reasoned that Chagall wanted to lead the viewer to God, through the biblical scene in the East window. In an interview on his windows in Reims cathedral, he said:

“Jouer avec la lumière qui est derrière, avec l’esprit, avec les gens qui vont venir prier, et tout ça, c’est très grave, ça, […] ça doit s’addresser aux nuages, au ciel, à l’ame.”

“I play with light, with the spirit, with the people who come to pray, all those things. It’s very serious, […] it has to address the clouds, the sky, the soul.” When talking about his Bible project that he commenced in 1930, he said that “it must sing, it must cry; it is the Bible.” Chagall showed countless times that he had a real reverence for the Bible and demonstrated its importance to his work. He placed an emphasis on helping people to pray, and to come to address the soul of the person viewing the work. He saw this as “very serious.” It was clearly not just a commission when he painted Christian art. He evidently believed himself to be an instrument in bringing the Christian worshipper closer to God. This is not something that has been acknowledged, yet Chagall spoke about it. It must be remembered that the Bible was central to Chagall’s career – this has been forgotten.

In prioritising visual effectiveness, it meant that his drawing in of people into his world was winsome and subtle. It is interesting at this point to note that Chagall remained distinctly Jewish and remained throughout his life profoundly attached to the Jewish people. However, when Chagall was warned against decorating a Church by the Grand Rabbin de France Jacob Kaplan (1895-1994), Chagall insisted it was purely an artistic endeavour. Might it be possible to see this as an entrance to Christianity? The winsomeness of beauty provided him with an entrance.

Knowing that he demonstrated an increased love for depicting New Testament scenes upon becoming close friends with the Maritains, it seems that Chagall was torn, as he did not want to disappoint his fellow Jews in any way. Multiple times he would ask for advice from Rabbis before decorating a church, as if he saw it as something that might change him.

Ultimately, the Bible became a firm foundation for him. Late in his career, when making stained glass, he declared that “in moments of doubt, the Bible’s grandeur and wisdom has given me peace.”  

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