Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Regarded as one of the “old masters” of the twentieth century, Chagall’s works are fantasies saturated with the emotions, ideas, and images of Jewish folklore and religion blended with the customs of Russian provincial life. Chagall (1887-1985) created an artistic genre virtually his own, a world of private dreams and symbolic fantasies, with his lively, large-scale renderings of Russian village life as filtered through the prism of Yiddish fable.

Chagall portrait

Chagall’s Jewish heritage and his reliance upon the culture of the shtetl were central elements for his inspiration and subject matter, and he is particularly renowned for the characteristic originality, complexity and resonance of his use of color, particularly the color blue.

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Chagall’s whimsical use of color is also evident in the artist’s literary style. In this July 27, 1966, letter to journalist Ernest Hauser, he writes about his preference for the color blue, attributing it to the mazalot, a popular theme in his painting:

 

Letter regarding “Chagall blue.”

I hasten – as much as it is possible for me to hasten in my present life of going and coming, of work great, small, and large – to respond. I very well remember you and your attention to Chagall in your articles. Now you are busy with a single thing: my use of the [color] blue. I have heard, for 40 or 50 years, about Chagall’s blue. This manner [of speaking] comes, perhaps, from Veronese’s painting to which one has also assigned the [color] green. But, because it is a color that one has also assigned to other painters, I think that the preference for blue can be explained more simply. Each of us is born under this or that star, has a day and month which have a certain color. And someone born in July [Chagall was born July 7, 1887] has, perhaps, blue in him . . .

Paolo Caliari, known as Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), was an Italian Renaissance painter known as a great colorist and for his very large historical paintings centering on religion and mythology. His Feast in the House of Levi (1573) is one of the largest canvasses of the 16th century, measuring 18’ by 43.’ Just as Chagall was known for his “Chagall blue,” Veronese was known for “Veronese green,” a shade close to blue-green, which he formulated.

Chagall’s inspiration derived from a clearly definable and specifically Jewish milieu, including particularly the Bible, and particularly after his trip to Eretz Yisrael in 1931. Although much of his work is infused with his knowledge of the Bible and his love for Eretz Yisrael, we discuss below his acknowledged seminal work where these influences are particularly profound: the Hadassah stained glass windows.

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Chagall was commissioned by Ambroise Vollard (18661939), one of the most important dealers in French contemporary art of his time, to illustrate the Bible. Although he could have completed the project in France, Chagall used the assignment as an excuse to travel to Eretz Yisrael, arriving in February 1931. Feeling at home in a homeland where many spoke Yiddish and Russian, he was impressed by the pioneering spirit of the people in the kibbutzim and deeply moved by the Western Wall and the other holy places.

Chagall later told a friend that Eretz Yisrael gave him the most vivid impression he had ever received. Where Delacroix and Matisse had found inspiration in the exoticism of North Africa, Chagall, as a Jew in Eretz Yisrael, had an entirely different perspective; what he was really searching for there was not external stimulus but, rather, an inner endorsement from the land of his ancestors.

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Between 1931 and 1934, Chagall worked obsessively on the Bible, even going to Amsterdam to carefully study biblical paintings by Rembrandt and El Greco. He walked the streets of the city’s Jewish quarter to again feel the earlier atmosphere: “I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time.” Indeed, Chagall described his experience at the Kotel in poetic terms:

I came to Palestine to examine certain ideas, and I came without a camera, without even a brush. No documentation, no tourist impressions, and nevertheless I am glad to have been there. From far and wide, they pour towards the Wailing Wall, bearded Jews in yellow, blue and red robes and with fur caps. Nowhere else do you see such despair and so much joy; nowhere else are you so shaken and yet so happy as at the sight of this thousand-year-old heap of stones and dust in Jerusalem . . .

Chagall’s dreams of the Bible, which never left him, later manifested themselves in the twelve stained-glass windows that he created at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem (1960).

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The Jerusalem windows came to be through the singular efforts of Dr. Miriam Kottler Freund, then president of the Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Freund (1906-1999), a Jewish history scholar who founded the World Bible Society, traveled to Paris to ask Chagall to contribute to the new Hadassah facility then under construction in Jerusalem, and the artist, who executed stained glass work only late in his career, agreed to create the windows.

The windows are considered to be the crowning achievement of Chagall’s long and impressive career. He himself thought as such, remarking:

The synagogue shall be a crown for the Jewish Queen and the windows shall be the jewels in that crown – there is the light of the sky in these windows and the participation of the good Lord. They have completely transformed my vision, they gave me a great shock, made me reflect. I don’t know I shall paint from now on, but I believe that something is taking place.

Indeed, the windows manifest a dazzling luminosity, and the ethereal quality of the light creates an extraordinary translucent effect. However, Chagall was very disappointed that they were backlit with artificial light so that the illumination remains constant, rather than changing in response to the natural Jerusalem light. Freund described the story in her monograph, Jewels for a Crown: The Story of the Chagall Windows, a title obviously taken from Chagall’s quote cited above.

Chagall was concerned about offending charedi and other Orthodox Jews, many of whom opposed Jewish devotional synagogue art and, as such, he chose to employ symbolic representations rather than actual Biblical illustrations; thus, his iconography included flowers, trees, animals, fish and the like, but no human figures. Familiar with the Kabbalistic idea that there are twelve heavenly gates, one for each tribe, through which the prayers of the tribe ascend on High, he decided to feature heraldic symbols, accompanied by Hebrew texts, based upon biblical verses from Jacob’s blessing of his twelve sons and Moses’ blessing of the twelve tribes.

For example, in the first window, Chagall cites Jacob’s blessing from Genesis 49:3-4 for Reuven, who displeased his father by failing to live up to his expectations for his first-born, including having the chutzpa to move his mother Leah’s bed into Jacob’s tent: “Reuven, you are my firstborn, my might and the first fruit of my strength . . . Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer.” The window illustration features mandrake leaves, which Reuven gave to Leah; blue hue and fish, which suggest the instability of water; fish, which represent fruitfulness; and a radiant circle, emblematic of sunrise, which in turn is the symbol of Reuven’s status as the firstborn.

Chagall began his work with pen and ink, collage and gouache drawings. Based upon a new glass staining technique for intensifying color that he had developed, sheets of fifty colors specified by the artist were blown and rolled at the St. Juste glassworks in the Loire Valley. The glass was then cut into patterns in accordance with Chagall’s small preliminary models, and he etched and painted on the glass, deepening some shades and creating new designs, before the glass was reheated in a kiln.

Chagall ended up spending two years to complete the entire project, and the actual windows installation took almost two months. Displaying his deep, abiding, and profound love for his family, for the Jewish people, and Jewish history, he commented, “All the time I was working [on the windows], I felt my mother and father looking over my shoulder; and behind them were Jews, millions of other vanished Jews of yesterday and a thousand years ago.”

In this July 31, 1962, correspondence on his Vence letterhead, Chagall writes to Madam Tal in Jerusalem thanking her for her support for him and his art, making particular reference to his Jerusalem windows:

Chagall letter regarding his windows.

“The Hills”
Vence (A.M.)
Dear Madam [Tal]:

How to thank you for your generosity and the sympathy that you have for me and my art.

I received several articles and the great magazine of Youth with your story on my stained-glass windows. I am deeply touched.

I did not forget our rendezvous and our meeting in Jerusalem. I retain the best memories of you and your attention. I will try to always merit the trust that you have manifested in me.

I hope that the synagogue will improve, at least internally. And myself, psychologically, I will try to get used to this architectural situation.

If you come to Europe, I would be happy to see you here in this region where I live.

With my cordial regards,

 

P.S. You told me one day that Mr. Rosenthal of Russia was interested in me. Little by little, my memory becomes familiar and these memories of my youth make me happy.

Before their final installation at Hadassah, the windows were on view at the Louvre during the summer of 1961 and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York at the end of the year, where an all-time record of 175,000 visitors came to see it during the seven weeks it was on display. President Kennedy sent a telegram to Freund to thank her for arranging for the windows to be exhibited in the United States:

It is with great pleasure that I send greetings to Hadassah, to the Museum of Modern Art and to the individuals who have made it possible for people in the United States to see the extraordinary Chagall stained glass windows. The inspiration of an ancient and noble history and the inspiration of modern artistic genius are combined in these windows. The importance of this cultural event is deepened for us by our knowledge that the windows are destined for the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center near Jerusalem and that by their beauty they will serve and encourage the scientific and humanitarian work done there.

The 11’ x 8’ windows were formally dedicated on February 6, 1972, as part of Hadassah’s Golden Anniversary Celebration, and attendees included Rishon L’Tzion Yitzchak Nissim; the American and French ambassadors; Israeli officials, including Education Minister Abba Eban (who spoke at the ceremony); and delegations from Hadassah and the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Chagall’s emotional speech at the dedication perhaps best summarizes the artist’s soul and the centrality of his family, Eretz Yisrael, the Bible, and the Jewish people in his art and to his life:

How is it that the air and earth of Vitebsk, my birthplace, and of thousands of years of exile, find themselves mingled in the air and earth of Jerusalem?

How could I have thought that not only my hands with their colors would direct me in my work, but that the poor hands of my parents and of others and still others with their mute lips and their closed eyes, who gathered and whispered behind me, would direct me as if they also wished to take part in my life?

I feel, too, as though the tragic and heroic resistance movements in the ghettos, and your war here in this country, are blended in my flowers and beasts and fiery colors . . .

I feel as if colors and lines flow like tears from my eyes, though I do not weep …, I know that the path of our life is eternal and short, and while still in my mother’s womb, I learned to travel this path with love rather than hate.

These things occurred to me many years ago when I first stepped on Biblical ground preparing to create etchings for the Bible [author’s note: this is a reference to his 1931 trip to Eretz Yisrael, discussed above] and they emboldened me to bring my modest gift to the Jewish people – to the Jewish people who always dreamed of biblical love, of friendship and peace among all people, to that people who lived here, thousands of years ago, among the Semitic peoples. And this, which is today called “religious art,” I created while bearing in mind the great and ancient creations of the surrounding Semitic people.

My hope is that I hereby extend my hand to seekers of culture, to poets, and to artists among the neighboring people.

I have conducted two years of labor, creating these twelve glass-stained windows for this synagogue in Jerusalem. My hope is that the synagogue will please you and that it will overflow with harmony even as I have prayed.

I saw the hills of Sodom and the Negev, out of whose defilement appear the shadows of our prophets in their yellowish garments, the color of dry bread. I heard their ancient words – have they not truly and justly shown in their words how to behave on this earth and by what ideal to live?

I draw hope and encouragement from thinking that my humble work will remain in their land, in your land.

When four of the beloved windows were damaged by Jordanian shelling during the 1967 Six-Day War, Chagall immediately wrote to the Hadassah Medical Center: “Don’t worry about the windows! Worry about Israel. I’ll make you new windows.”

And he did. However, additional repairs to 35 of the 144 panes that had sustained tiny punctures in the glass during the war were repaired in 1986. Today, some 300,000 people making the trek up Ein Kerem each year are inspired by this monumental work.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.
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