Union Church of Pocantico Hills, the Chagall and Matisse stained glass windows

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Along with elusive hopes and dreams, I have a few achievable visions. One of these is to view as many of the stained-glass windows created by Marc Chagall as I can. With that goal in mind, my friend Nick and I rode the train from Manhattan to  Westchester County as part of a trip to New York. Our destination was the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, home of nine windows by Chagall and one by Henri Matisse.

We boarded a northbound train at Grand Central Station, leaving behind Manhattan’s grit and dazzle for the tranquility of the Hudson River Valley. About 30 miles north of the Big Apple, we stepped off the train at the Tarrytown station. A taxi ride in a black sedan took us uphill from the Hudson through the winding, tree-lined streets of Pocantico Hills, a small town with some grand parts.

This hamlet in the town of Mount Pleasant is home to the grand Rockefeller estate, Kykuit, (pronounced kie-cut, like die cut) and an unassuming stone church whose building and stained glass windows were originally funded by the Rockefeller family. Inside Union Church, the largest Chagall window graces the back wall, while each side has four Chagall windows that each portrays a scene from the Bible.

The windows are illuminated versions of Chagall paintings. With the help of skilled artisans, he began the windows in the traditional fashion, setting glass pieces in place. He personally achieved the effect of painting by brushing the glass with an acid wash in a process similar to applying color to canvas.

Nick and I spent time with each image, walking between the pews for close encounters. At the front of the church, we faced the Rose Window, an abstract work by Matisse. Some of its shapes in reminded me of green sea creatures. Union Church’s Rev. Pastor Paul Dehoff noted that the windows and the Rockefeller family’s involvement have played an integral role in the continued prosperity of the church. “But, on the other hand, people are people. We have good music, a charming setting, and the windows.

“Windows, even by Matisse and Chagall, do not a church make. They lift us and help us transport us to other beauty.”

I agree there’s much more to a church than stained-glass windows — but art gets me through the door.

One of Chagall’s nine windows at Union Church is titled “The Crucifixion.” He painted Christ’s image in fluid black lines on a cross amid blue glass that shimmers like water.

Hope is the message I draw from the Easter story, Christ’s death on the cross and the resurrection after three days.

Recently I experienced severe muscle spasms that made me curl up in pain. For a while I forgot about everything else, though I held out hope the misery was temporary. I repeated my mantra that “It’s only three days.” Coincidentally — or not — my back pain ended in three calendar days.

Whenever life gets me down, I am reminded of the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection three days later, a limited period of time. Temporary. No matter how deep the pain, physical or emotional — it too, will pass. Easter morning will come.

That day in Pocantico Hills, I took one last look at the light streaming through stained-glass windows. The dancing light and color filled me with a sense that good things will happen. As we walked out of that rare intimate venue for great art treasures, I squeezed Nick’s hand with satisfaction.

Riding the train back to Manhattan, I felt different. I was changed forever by the seeing the Chagall windows at the Union Church.

The Benicia Herald published this essay in 2014.

The Chagall Museum, Nice, France

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Bound for the Chagall Museum on a winter afternoon in the seaside city of Nice, France, I turned my back on the Mediterranean. Walking past the train station, I took the Boulevard de Cimiez to the site dedicated to Chagall’s paintings, prints, and stained glass,

One can easily reach the museum via Bus #15 for a single euro, or by one of Nice’s ubiquitous taxis, but on the day I visited I preferred a light hike in the French Riviera sunshine.

The sleek, gray, box-shaped buildings were midway to the top of the Cimiez Hill. A simple silver sign near the street told me I had reached my destination. I navigated the sidewalk that cut across the lawn. The place seemed oddly quiet for a site dedicated to one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists. I wondered whether it would be open or closed after. My fears fell away when other visitors stepped out of the museum.

Feelings of relief washed over me. This was the museum visit of my dreams. All the planning and travel time was over. I purchased a ticket for 8.5 euros and followed the clerk’s gesture to the glass doors. I opened my eyes and heart to the experience.

For the briefest moment I paused in the gift shop before moving on to the exhibit area. I rapidly surveyed the array of prints, books, DVDs, cards, bookmarks and other small items designed with Chagall images. Though they were beautiful, the many reproductions had to wait because I was about to enjoy original Chagalls — paintings, glass art, drawings and tapestries.

For me this was a sacred site, a temple of art.

I advanced through two sets of double glass doors to find the actual paintings. After handing slips of paper to the ticket taker, I entered two adjoining oval exhibit spaces and became immersed in Chagall’s deep, radiant colors.

Rich greens, purples, crimson reds, and rays of yellow colored the larger-than-life series based on images from the Old Testament. Titles included “The Creation,” “Abraham and the Three Angels,” “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” Chagall filled the corners with brides, angels and roosters that appeared as if they floated above the scenes. Flights of fancy were never so free.

The palette changed to raspberry, rose and other shades of red in a room that displayed the five paintings in the “Song of Solomon” series, a celebration of romantic love. Chagall’s two great loves were his adored first wife Bella and the second, Valentina, with whom he lived at the end of his life.

The artist unabashedly portrayed love through entwined human forms painted with broad, sweeping strokes. The audacity of the colors and energy astonished this writer.

Chagall’s work has touched my soul for decades. I saw his paintings for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The childlike simplicity, the bright color, and whimsy drew me into his world.

I traversed a long hallway adorned with other paintings; I peered into the semi-darkened auditorium. Floor-to-ceiling blue-stained glass windows made me gasp. The stained glass windows on the opposite side of the auditorium were similar to their sisters at the Chicago Art Institute and other sites with Chagall window installations.

As if on cue, a jazz pianist on stage played a few bold notes on the grand piano. A jazz ensemble rehearsed for an evening performance. That concert and others serve as a living fulfillment Chagall’s vision that his museum would bring together music and painting. I watched the play of light shining through glass before returning for one more stroll through the display of canvasses. Chagall’s art is a gift. So playful. Such happiness! Love of life saturates his art.

On leaving the Chagall Museum, I faced the dazzling sunshine of the Cote d’Azur, and followed my wandering spirit downhill to the sea.