Marc Chagall was in his 90s when he created a series of stained glass windows, which decades later still draw thousands of visitors each month to the top of a hill in Mainz, Germany. They grace a cathedral, of all things, and that built originally to serve the Holy Roman Empire. It was then vicar Klaus Mayer who asked Chagall to help restore the church so heavily damaged during Word War II. Chagall, nee Moishe Shagal was a Jew, middle-aged in the mid-twentieth century. Born in Russia, and settled in France, he survived WWII in the United States.
Now, I’ve seen Chagall’s stained glass windows in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem — a visual representation of biblical poetry describing the twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33). I’m a fan of his sketches and paintings, too. But there’s something particularly moving about this space flooded with a cool and calming blue.
Blue dominates the windows and thus the chapel illuminated by them. The biggest windows, those that flank the sanctuary have no figures in them at all but wave and swirl in shades of blues. These were not actually made by Chagall but by Charles Marq, a friend and sometimes collaborator with Chagall. Their names have a graceful symmetry — Marc Chagall, Charles Marq — that suits the manner in which Marq picked up without strictly imitating Chagall’s colors and style after the master’s death and carried them forward in this place.
But it is the windows that Chagall created that are the transporting art of St. Stephan’s Mainz. The celebration of creation, the wonder of a God in relation to ordinary human beings, the partnership of male and female, and the power of sacred text, these are not specifically Jewish or Christian ideas but transcend religious lines. That said, Chagall included also the Christian-specific images of Mary’s annunciation and the crucifixion of Christ. I have never seen Christ in flight on the cross, and I’m not sure that Chagall had that in mind with this image. Yet there is a lift to Jesus’ arms and hands, a weightlessness down through his legs that suggests flight. Or maybe the angels and birds that all around simply worked on my subconscious in ways that made me see Chagall’s Christ as already transformed and transforming.
Chagall was a mystic. He called his art “supranatural.” Anyone familiar with the biblical narratives in Genesis or with Moses and David will recognize them in these images, but Chagall took license, too. In the bottom panel of one of the side windows a great big red rooster with a smaller woman figure is called “Polarity of the Creation.” David plays his harp in heaven near the top of another panel.
That Chagall made these windows when he was in his 90s is inspiration in itself. Add to that that the images, cast in Chagall’s seemingly effortless style, are by all accounts imperfect. The candles lean a bit, there’s a floating donkey with no real feet but a sweet, sweet smile, and one of the angels has two faces. But who cares? It works. It so works.
I walked out of the church into a warm and breezy afternoon feeling lighter reminded that reconciliation and healing between peoples is possible. What is imperfect can be invaluably great. A single lifetime is never enough, so never quit. And there is much, much, so much more than any one of us is or sees or can even imagine.
So let the fiddlers float, rainbows serve as rooster perch, and Jerusalem come down from heaven. Oh, and please, don’t anyone bomb Mainz again.
A version of this article also appears on The Huffington Post.