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Chagall’s ‘Window’ Synagogue: Hadassah Hospital

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Upon walking into the synagogue at Hadassah Hospital, one is forced to look up.  The irresistible color and light emanating from the 12 stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall is overwhelming and draws the eyes into a miniature cloud of color.  In fact, the intensely sensuous nature of colored light that dominates the upper story of the little chapel seems somehow inappropriate in this house of prayer.


 


It is clearly a constant source of distraction from the concentration necessary for prayer and study.  Rather it would seem to function much better as an art museum, which of course is exactly how many thousands of visitors experience the chapel set in the midst of the now sprawling Hadassah Hospital complex just outside Jerusalem in Ein Kerem.

 

 



Naphtali Joseph Benjamin; Stained Glass


by Marc Chagall and Charles & Brigitte Marq (1962)


Courtesy Hadassah Medical Center, Ein Kerem, Israel


 

 


In a rather extraordinary manner this set of stained glass windows, each 11′ high by 8′ wide and set within a plain round arch, was Marc Chagall’s heartfelt gift to the Land of Israel and the Jewish people.  Each of the windows represents one of the twelve tribes who entered the land under the leadership of Joshua and as derived from Jacob’s final blessing to his sons found in Genesis 49:1-27.   They are arranged three windows on each side: Reuben, Simeon and Levi on the east; Judah, Zebulun and Issachar on the south; Dan, Gad and Asher on the west and finally Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin on the north wall. 


 


While they do not echo the tribal arrangement or orientation around the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, they do follow exactly the order as enumerated in Jacob’s final blessing.  Additionally the text that appears in most of the windows is from the Genesis blessing, with the exception of Levi (sublimated in the castigation of Simeon in Genesis 49:5) where there is a fragment of text from Moses’ final blessing of the tribes in Deuteronomy 33:10.  Three of the windows; Zebulun, Joseph and Naphtali have no texts at all.

 

 



Judah Zebulun Issachar; Stained Glass


by Marc Chagall and Charles & Brigitte Marq (1962)


Courtesy Hadassah Medical Center, Ein Kerem, Israel


 

 


These windows were created under a most auspicious set of circumstances when Chagall’s explorations in stained glass coincided with the needs of the new construction at Hadassah Medical Center in Israel.  Because of his long standing interest in religious expression, Chagall had been intrigued by the post-war interest in modern art used within a religious setting as evidenced by the Matisse Chapel at Vence in 1951 and the Leger windows at the Church Audincourt, also in 1951. 


 


The Dominicans in France commissioned works for the Church of Assy, consecrated in 1950.  Chagall designed some windows there in 1957 and was quickly commissioned to design two windows at the 14th century Cathedral at Metz that boasts the largest expanses of stained glass in the world.  In this commission Chagall collaborated with master stained glass artisans Charles and Brigitte Marq and completed a Jeremiah window and an Exodus window.  When these were exhibited in Paris in June 1959, Dr. Miriam Freund, National President of Hadassah and Joseph Neufeld, architect of the new Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center saw his newly completed work and immediately commissioned Chagall and Marq to create windows for the new hospital chapel.

 

 



Reuben Simon Levi; Stained Glass


by Marc Chagall and Charles & Brigitte Marq (1962)


Courtesy Hadassah Medical Center, Ein Kerem, Israel


 


 

As the project developed, one can imagine the challenge of Chagall’s commission, his first in the new State of Israel.  Twelve images would have to express the totality of the Jewish people while each would epitomize one of Jacob’s sons and the Torah’s expression of each tribe’s quality.  Chagall did many drawings for each window, slowly evolving a composition and selection of symbols that would adequately reflect Jacob’s final blessing to his sons at the end of Genesis.


 


While he may have felt constrained by the injunction against the human figure for synagogue works, he easily compensated by extensive use of his signature hybrid creatures that had served as conveyors of complex meaning over most of his career.  Fish, birds, horses, bulls, chickens and goats all took on human attributes; expressing Chagall’s notion of the Chassidic idea that all life was imbued with consciousness and volition expressing G-dliness.

 

 



Dan Gad Asher; Stained Glass


by Marc Chagall and Charles & Brigitte Marq (1962)


Courtesy Hadassah Medical Center, Ein Kerem, Israel


 

 


The first three windows easily represent Chagall’s overall aesthetic and conceptual approach.  “Reuben you are my first born, my might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank” (Genesis 49:3)    The soft cerulean blues vibrate and make the surface shimmer in a watery concoction.  Four fish swim in a sea below while four birds flutter in flight up towards a glowing orb that contains the Hebrew text.  Reuben is a particularly complex figure, defined by his father as unstable as water, hence the fish and restless sea. 


 


The shame of the tribe is that Reuben forfeited his rights as first-born and yet Chagall does not dwell on his disgrace but rather emphasizes his soaring and laudatory characteristics with birds that fly towards the upbeat Torah text.  Even Reuben’s questionable role in the use of the mandrakes he found for his mother Leah, seen as shockingly red bushes at the right of the sea, find resolution in the purple reds that illuminate two of the airborne birds, perhaps alluding to his redemptive injunction against spilling Joseph’s blood and thereby effectively saving his brother’s life.  


 


The tribe of Simon provides an even more difficult problem as Chagall starkly lists along the bottom edge his father Jacob’s denunciation “Simon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness, let not my soul be included in their council”(Genesis 49:5 – 6).   Here the blue color turns angry, ranging from purples remembering the brutal massacre of the people of Shechem to Prussian blues and tinges of black that nonetheless somehow supports three orbs.  They are surrounded by threatening beasts; a winged and horned bull flies, bloodied doves flutter and finally a war-like horse completes the grim tone of the window.  Beautiful pink, rose and light purple lights burst through to redeem the severe characteristics of this fearsome tribe. 


 


Chagall’s unwillingness to shirk from the realities of the Torah text and a candid portrayal of the tribes provides him with the freedom to divert from his primary text, as narrative deems necessary. Levi is inextricably linked with Simon in Genesis and yet the tribe has a glorious tradition that must be celebrated.  The text is easily found in Deuteronomy.  Therefore the next window soars in a brilliant yellow laced with gentle blues, reds and greens that celebrate the holy and priestly role the Levites will play to bring the Jewish people closer to G-d.  A ceremonial ram and lion frame the bouquet of peace flowers that ascend along with the Star of David and its two mythical birds. 


 


This double symbol of hope and prosperity crowns the tablets of the law that bear Levi’s textual message of, “They shall teach Your laws to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel, they shall offer Your incense to savor and whole offerings on Your altar, Bless Hashem his substance” (Deuteronomy 33:10-11).  The blessings of redemption through Torah study and service animates the multiple shades of yellow and gold, setting off and contrasting with the more somber brotherly colors of Simon and Reuben.


 


The simple white walls and arched ceiling of the chapel set off the luminous Chagall windows, allowing them to glow in an uncontrolled orgy of colored light and images.  If one were to pause and use the chapel as a place of prayer, an utterly new experience could emerge.  One would have to concentrate but, imagine because of the intensity of the aesthetic experience, one would absorb the beauty, the serenity and intensity and then close one’s eyes and apply this experience of beauty to the concentration of prayer. 


 


Aesthetics and prayer would merge in the environment created by Chagall’s windows.  In the midst of vibrant images and symbols of the complexity of the Jewish people, a personal prayer of praise, petition and thanksgiving would surely enter Heaven’s gates.   Perhaps the Psalm of David would be fulfilled “Praiseworthy are those who dwell in Your house; may they always praise you, Selah Praiseworthy is the people whose G-d is Hashem.”


 


 


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com 

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About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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