Prophet Joel

The Little Church Which Is A Modern Art Masterpiece

You know you live in a swish area when the stained glass windows of your local church were made by Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall.  The windows were a gift from the Rockefeller family who live nearby in their Kykuit estate in New York.   Some of the church goers, however, didn’t want them because they were too “modern”.  Who turns down a free Chagall??  The Rockefellers eventually won the point and got to install their windows.

Union Church

Union Church
Photo: Richard Chen

In case you didn’t know, the Rockefellers are a very rich and powerful American family who built their fortunes in the oil business in the late 19th century.  The family patriarch John D. Rockefeller Sr was the first American to become a billionaire.  If you account for inflation, he is considered the richest man in history.  You probably recognise the family name from the New York City landmark they built, Rockefeller Plaza.

Anyway, I was visiting friends who live in Westchester (a Northern suburb of New York City) and stopped by the Union Church of Pocantico Hills to see its windows.  The non-denominational Protestant church is a small stone structure built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1921.  The interior is a pared down Neo-gothic style.

union chapel

Union Church Interior
photo: Jaime Martorano

The only adornment in the tiny church are the stained glass windows which are simply stunning.  The light filtering through the windows even on a cloudy day like the day I went was spectacular.  It reminded me of Saint Chapelle in Paris in that respect – a small jewel box of colour.

The Matisse is behind the altar and the 9 Chagalls are on the sides and the rear.  The Matisse window was commissioned as a memorial to Junior’s wife, Abby, who was one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  The Matisse window is the last work of the artist.  Poor Matisse was wheelchair bound and very ill and tried to refuse the commission.  No one says no to a Rockefeller though.  Get the general drift here??

Matisse Window

Matisse Window
Photo: geoffreyzheng

When Junior died, his children installed a large stained glass window depicting the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan in his memory.  Interestingly, Junior was not a fan of modern art!

Chagall

The Good Samaritan Window
photo: Jassy-50

Chagall and his wife had fled the Nazis to arrive in New York due to a Rockefeller-funded program which rescued over 2000 prominent artists whose lives were at risk.  The other Chagall stained glass windows depict scenes from the Old Testament, such as prophets and the angels guarding the Garden of Eden,  in deference to his Jewish faith.

Prophet Joel

The Prophet Joel
Photo: geoffreyzheng

In the 1950’s Picasso was quoted as saying:

When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.

This church shows off these two masters’ understanding of colour to great effect.  The stained glass windows are an inspiring harmony of colours.  I personally find it is easier to believe in the divine when you are surrounded by such beauty.

Union Church has its own free smartphone app which allows you tour the artwork from the comfort your own home.  If you do have a chance though, I would encourage to stop by the church and see the stained glass windows in person.

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